New on the Horizon: Drone Racing Takes Off

By Diane Andrews
New on the Horizon: Drone Racing Takes Off

FPV goggles on, remote radio control in hand, Justin Rey Baltazar from Santa Clara can be spotted most weekdays flying his hand-built drone at Baylands Park in Sunnyvale, where he practices drone racing and free-style maneuvers for one or two hours after work.

Baltazar views the flight through the FPV (first-person view) goggles that are connected to the camera mounted on his drone. Although his feet never leave the ground, he experiences the thrill and exhilaration of his body being airborne over the bay. Up, up, they soar as one, between trees, over treetops, over water, fast and free.

“When you’re flying a drone via FPV, you get this out-of-body experience that makes you feel like you’re flying. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to fly, and this is the closest thing to that without risk of physical injury,” said Baltazar, who has been building and flying his own mini-quads since March 2016.

Baltazar experiences a rush of adrenaline as he reacts quickly to guide his drone safely around obstacles at speeds of 40 to 60 MPH with bursts as high as 101 MPH, scanned by a radar gun. He has crashed more than one drone, calling it “part of the learning experience.”

“The racing drones I fly have no GPS, no ‘auto-leveling’ feature, and are controlled 100 percent manually. If you flip it upside down, the flight controller will not try to reorient your drone to try and stop it from hitting the ground. It will hold position until you change position with your controller,” explained Baltazar.

Guiding the flight of a drone manually requires a steady hand and good hand-eye coordination.

“Drone racing is a game of inches, and if you’re off by as little as one inch, your mini-quad flying at 45+ MPH is going to crash and probably break. Most of the breaks we get are from propellers, which are fairly cheap to replace. Others aren’t so lucky and lose the frame, motors or other electronics,” said Baltazar.

The mini-quads have four corner motors, and size is based on the motor-to-motor distance measured diagonally. Popular quad sizes are 250 mm motor-to-motor or smaller. Baltazar, known as JRey in the drone racing community at Baylands Park, chooses a carbon fiber frame for his drones and selects the electronics to go with them.

“It’s all personal preference as each component gives you a different feel. For example, some motors will provide more power while others will be more efficient,” said Baltazar, a 2006 graduate of Wilcox High School.

“Technology has changed a lot since I started. Better cameras, better motors, better propellers, better software, etc. Overall, technology has evolved at an unprecedented speed.”

Drone racing as a sport adds a competitive edge to the thrill of flying a drone and is catching on around the world. Baltazar, who works at Intuitive Surgical in the Environmental Health and Safety Department and is pursuing a degree in Environmental Studies, became interested in flying drones after viewing videos online. He got into racing after meeting experienced pilots at Baylands Park.

“The FPV community is pretty friendly. We are constantly approached by new pilots, and we try to help them as much as we can,” said Baltazar, a member of #TeamBaylands, drone racing enthusiasts who fly almost every day. He is in a chapter of the MultiGP Drone Racing League.

FPV drone pilots travel to races across the Bay Area and even to other countries. Baltazar was one of 16 pilots, ages 11 to 45, who participated in the first-ever $10,000 Xfinity California Drone Speed Challenge—a quarter-mile, indoor drag race—organized by Aerial Sports League at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco on July 20. After crashing his drone during a practice flight, Baltazar switched to a back-up quad.

“My first race was against the #1 seed of the day, and I couldn’t keep up. On the bright side, my mini-quad was at least top 2 for the fastest quads of the day. Since the race was ‘California Drone Speed Challenge,’ that was good enough for me,” said Baltazar.