Drone racing combines RC love with experience of flying

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JERSEY CITY, N.J. >> "I'm no Superman," Cain Madere said, but he flies like Superman, except he wears little electronic goggles instead of a cape and tights and keeps both feet on the ground.

Madere, 19, loves his drone's-eye view of the world — the fast-moving scene transmitted from the onboard camera as the remote-controlled machine skims over the grass or climbs to the treetops. "You definitely get the experience I assume Superman would feel," he said. "You get every bit of the experience you would actually get flying like a bird."

Drones of a feather flock together; how else to explain why about 100 drone pilots spent much of Saturday competing in time trials for the Liberty Cup race in a field behind the Liberty Science Center here? The top 24 expect to spend Wednesday facing off in still more time trials and complicated elimination runs on a tricky course. The organizers promoted the event as the first drone race set against the Manhattan skyline. The second, the 2016 U.S. Drone Racing Championship on Governors Island, in New York City, will be held next weekend, with some of the same competitors but different organizers.

Drones like the one Madere races are not what retailers such as Amazon have in mind for door-to-door deliveries. His cannot carry much more than a camera to send the live, full-color video feed to his goggles, and it zooms along at speeds of 80 mph or so, probably way too fast for the protein bars and facial toner you ordered online last night.

"It's a thrill I can't get doing anything else," Madere, who has been flying remote-controlled contraptions since he was 6, said. "It was a scale version of a P-40" — a model airplane based on a single engine aircraft that saw action in World War II — "and I crashed it," Madere said. It had belonged to a friend of his grandfather's. Madere said he was forgiven.

He raced remote-controlled cars, boats and airplanes until he discovered quadcopters (drones with four propellers) a couple of years ago. Soon he was racing competitively, using the call sign MAD_AIR. On the list of pilots who have already qualified for the drone nationals next weekend, he was ranked sixth in the United States and 20th in the world.

But these are still the early days of drone racing, mostly a sport of part-timers. Madere, for example, works in a graphic design shop. Another pilot here, Steve Zoumas, 31, works in his family's contracting firm on Long Island.

Drone racing is also a sport for do-it-yourselfers, tinkers and improvisers. Some drone pilots start a day of flying with six or seven drones and go home with only one or two still working. Sometimes the onboard battery fails, and the drone does not respond to joystick commands from the remote-control module. And sometimes the drone is nowhere to be found.

That brought to mind the early, crash-prone days of airplanes, when Wilbur and Orville Wright ran a bicycle shop while they tweaked their designs for wings. It also brought to mind long-ago races that pushed the distances that biplane pilots could fly. That, in turn, brought to mind a movie from the 1960s with a title almost as long as the race it was about: "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, or: How I Flew From London to Paris in 25 Hours and 11 Minutes."

That race lasted about 25 hours, 9 minutes longer than each drone race here.

So drone racing is about the thrill of speed, like hot-rodding?

"Hundred percent," said Zoumas, who has a way of saying "hundred percent" when he means "yes."

What about the high-pitched whistling noise that a drone makes when it is going that fast? Someone checking the course behind the science center said it sounded like the whine of a dentist's drill.

For once, Zoumas did not say "hundred percent."

"It sounds like an annoying bug flying around your head," he said. "The louder props are easier to fly because you can hear what they're doing." ("Props," he quickly explained, is how he refers to propellers. The drone he was flying had four small purple props.)

So if he hears a change in sound, something is not right?

"Hundred percent," he said.

Some drone pilots say their sport has been scapegoated and that drones pose little danger if they are flown by pilots who know what they are doing. "The thing that separates it from other sports is there's less of a risk," Madere said. "You get to put yourself in a high-intensity situation without the risk of hurting yourself."

Randy Scott Slavin, who organized the competition here, as well as the New York City Drone Film Festival in the spring, was not competing. Taking part would be a conflict of interest, he said. And besides, he knows too much. "I designed the track," he said, and he meant for it to be the most difficult course imaginable.

Even before the first race, Madere had heard about the gate on the side of the science center building that his drone would have to dive through. This prompted the obvious question: had he leapt tall buildings in a single bound?

"The FAA doesn't want me to answer that question," he said although he acknowledged that what he meant was that he did not want the Federal Aviation Agency to read his answer, which was: Once.

It was a hotel in Louisiana. And its roof was probably below the FAA's 400-foot height limit for recreational drones. (In June the agency issued rules for commercial drones weighing less than 55 pounds. It announced separate rules for recreational drone users last year, and more than 450,000 hobbyists registered in a government database.)

And then, faster than you could say, "It's a bird! It's a plane," Madere was telling another crash story.

"I was flying over a forest," Madere said. "I was flying over the canopy of the trees and I found a hole to dive into, and, when I did, the battery unplugged, and when the battery unplugged, the video went out. I had no idea where it was. At that point, it's time to break out the metal detector."


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