Drone racers get drifting at CAMST

Alan Ball, seated, chats to other drone pilots.

Drone racing is becoming more popular in South Africa. This was clearly evident recently at the Cape Academy of Maths Science and Technology (CAMST) in Constantia where local drone pilots were joined by others from Caledon, Johannesburg, Durban and Port Elizabeth.

Alan Ball who lives in Kirstenhof is a member of the Cape FPV Flyers Club that hosted this Western Cape Regional Drone Racing event. Alan also owns Flying Robot, a Westlake-based online store which sells drones and transports them countrywide.

He said a regular DJI Phantom, which is mainly used for aerial photography, can cost between
R15 000 to R30 000. A do-it- yourself racing drone kit starts at around
R7 500 but can go as high as R30 000. “It’s the difference between a regular car and a Formula 1 racing car,” said Alan. “But what sets these racing drones apart is the pilot has a lot more control and flies the drone first person view (FPV) as if they are
sitting inside the craft. A small camera on board transmits a live video back to the pilot who wears a set of FPV goggles. They fly at over 160km/h, hence the safety net,” he said.

Alan said drone racing is becoming very popular in South Africa. The first national racing event was held in April in Klerksdorp. Despite it being “in the middle of nowhere” there were 42 drone pilots.

He said the idea behind the Constantia event was to encourage families. And with tiny drones buzzing through the air, a jumping castle and a children’s birthday party it was certainly working. Nearby, on the lower field next to a pavilion, bigger boys with their toys flew their drones around a course designed by the national body for drone racing and FPV.

Alan said the course design is used by all clubs around the country. “That way we can measure our lap times against the guys in Joburg and Durban. The idea is to race around 10 flags while negotiating turns and then pass through five ‘gates’ or arches,” said Alan.

The most exciting part was the gate, actually a double one, where pilots negotiate a tower constructed from PVC piping – a first for the club. “It’s all in the timing. If they crash they get no points. They have to do three laps for their score to count,” said Alan.

Another first for the day was a freestyle competition where pilots could choose a piece of music and fly their drone making the most of the course in two minutes. “We judge style, flow, difficulty and use of the obstacles on the course. It’s very expressive like skateboarding,” said Alan.

The art is in hand-eye coordination and so it’s not surprising that children take to it like ducks to water. Alan said it attracts technical guys from IT and those who like problem-solving, also those who played with Lego and Meccano as child-
ren.

It also appeals to people who are wheelchair bound, such as Anthony Koeslag, also member of the club. And then of course children. One of them is Jadon Churchman, 13, who came all the way from Caledon to race in the event. He is mad about electronics and living on a farm has lots of space to fly the drone that he built with help from Google and YouTube. He said it’s exciting to watch it fly through his FPV goggles.

Simon Robinson of Drone Racing Africa said the drone industry is in the top five growth industries in South Africa. His company has provided lessons and training to the Sakivamba at CAMST. Last year, in July, the Sakhikamva Foundation introduced the world’s first science, technology, robotics, engineering, aerospace and maths (Stream) laboratory at CAMST (“Keeping youth off the streets”, Bulletin July 9).

Yusuf Sadar, a physics teacher at CAMST, who also assists their pupils with aviation, was at the event and said the school caters mainly for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds and guides them in the field of maths science technology and aviation. He said many of their students become pilots after school.

Early next year Flying Robot and Drone Racing Africa are teaming up with them to run a full time workshop in the Stream Lab at the school to teach pupils how to build and fly drones. Flying Robot collected old drones and parts to use in teaching pupils the electronics and principles of flying drones. They also will participate in two-day workshops at Schoenstatt Estate in Constantia. “And we’re currently working with Drone Racing Africa and Flying Robots to set up a committee to look at drawing up a curriculum for the workshop,” said Yusuf.

Wearing a T-shirt with “Build, race, crash, repeat”, Ken Venn a director of UAV Industries,
which sponsors Drone Racing Africa, sees this as a critical part
of the eco-system of the in-
dustry that will grow the resources.

UAV Industries is the largest commercial flight school in Africa which has trained 161 pilots in Cape Town this year. Visit www.facebook.com/events/298711760500890/