The buzzing in the air as I arrive is intensified by the impressive emptiness of my surroundings: a massive warehouse filled with the husks of disused cars, resting here and there about the vast upper floor of the Depot. It’s a former furniture factory located in the Castlemilk district in southern Glasgow that now serves as an arena for airsoft, a pellet-gun target game. It’s here where I meet Keiren, Fraser and Calum. By day, they’re a car mechanic, an IT professional, and a railroad worker. At this moment in the Depot, however, these three friends are drone racers.
Tiny flying machines, controlled by remote, whiz to and fro. Meanwhile, the guys are wearing headsets that stream video from the flying drone’s point of view — giving the wearer the impression that they’re sitting in a cockpit.
I ask Fraser — a car mechanic originally from Drymen and now living in Glasgow, and who is one of the highest ranked drone racers in Scotland — if his work with cars has any overlap with his hobby. “I like tinkering with stuff and I think it has a lot to do with my job,” he explains. “I like anything that’s fast and exciting, like cars and tuned-up drones.”
There are few signs left of the vast factory that The Depot once was; a few peppered wooden structures and busted cars providing cover for the airsoft course, the floor spattered here and there with droppings from the pigeons who have made their homes in the rafters. Their coos are barely audible today among the wasp-like din of the drones.
I like anything that’s fast and exciting, like cars and tuned-up drones.”
The guys’ backgrounds in transportation and technology sparked an interest in the small, portable, flying robots. And it’s an interest that by no means is limited to this dilapidated Glasgow warehouse, or even to Scotland.
FPV (first-person view) drone racing is big business these days. Television broadcaster Sky UK picked up drone racing for the launch of its channel Sky Sports Mix, investing over £1m in the Drone Racing League. In the US, sport broadcaster ESPN3 televised the 2016 US National Drone Racing Championships for the first time in August. GoPro has also entered the market having recently unveiled its highly portable Karma Drone, a compact beginner drone that represents a notable business expansion for the American camera manufacturer.
While drone racing’s financial heft is unlikely to match Formula 1’s any time soon, it may soon equal that of the competitive video gaming industry, which will offer more than $50m (£41m) in prize money this year, according to the US-based gaming research from Eilers & Krejcik.
FPV drone racing received a boost in the public consciousness in March 2016, when British teenager Luke Bannister won $250,000 (£173,900) from a $1m (£696,700) prize pool at the inaugural World Drone Prix in Dubai, a high-budget affair with some of the most elaborate tracks the sport has yet seen.
“A lot of money was poured into Dubai; they do things 20 times better than everybody else,” says Fraser.
Fraser met Keiren and Calum through their shared passion for drones and drone racing via a Google Plus group. The three get together regularly here at the Depot as well as various parks and outdoor areas to practice.
In March 2016, British teenager Luke Bannister won $250,000 (£173,900) at the inaugural World Drone Prix in Dubai.
Fraser has been flying drones for about nine months, but was into radio-controlled helicopters for eight years before that.
“These are pretty similar to flying heli, but they’re actually quite a bit easier,” he explains. “You can set a stabilise mode so that it’s not totally mental to control but you can also put it in ‘rate mode’, where there’s no self-level and it’s fully manual, which is closer to flying a remote control helicopter.”
Keiren, a sysadmin from Glasgow sits on a box, with controller in hand and white goggles strapped to his face. As of one week after our meeting here at the Depot, he is also current Scottish champion — he beat three other racers to the pip in the Grand Final, including Fraser, though the latter did edge out Keiren in both overall points and lap time.
But there is no sense of real rivalry here as Keiren flies his drone around a makeshift course laid out by Fraser. “I made the goalposts,” he says. “You can buy official race gates but they’re quite expensive and break pretty easily, so I DIY’d up six gates out of PVC pipes and bought some football markers for the track.”
Fraser lets me try on his goggles as he takes his turn to fly a few laps of the site — in other words, it’s as if I’m watching the drone’s flight from the driver’s seat. After some initial disorientation, I am impressed by the sensation of speed and clarity as he zips around the course, pulling off flips and twists as he goes. There is a degree of static to the image but the overall impression nonetheless instills an effective sense of flight. “You get disconnected and forget you’re sitting in a field or wherever as you’re that tuned into your flying,” Fraser explains.
It’s the closest thing you can get to piloting a helicopter without having to leave the ground.
“If you’re in the park and somebody comes along asking what you’re doing, you can put the goggles on their face and they never expect it,” says Keiren. “Before I had the goggles, I used to sit sometimes with my face right up to the screen if the sun was in my eyes. I looked strange!”
Fraser isn’t the only transport professional moonlighting as a lightning-quick pilot of tiny aerial vehicles: Calum, originally from Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, performs ground investigations as part of his railroad work and has an interest in the potential of drones in this capacity to identify drainage in unsafe locations, but admits that the idea “hasn’t gone anywhere yet.”
It was the DIY approach to building these machines that was his major attraction to drone racing. “The part of the hobby I really like is breaking apart something and then fixing it,” he says. “You can get kits that are ready to go, but for me it was about the fun of building something.”
That mindset is particularly useful when it comes to dealing with crashes, which are frequent and often quite dramatic. Fraser flies his drone into the ground during an acrobatic demonstration, one of several noted scrapes during this session.
I like breaking something then fixing it.
“That’s the thing,” Calum notes, “If you were flying shelf-bought drones in here and crashed them like that they would be broken, but Fraser’s put the time in, and these aren’t our first builds either, so we’ve had plenty of crashes and repairs. Lots of parts get passed around.”
“You buy the frames,” adds Fraser. “You buy the motors and speed controls separately. You buy all the components separately, build up and build to the spec that you want. Regarding cameras, you’ve got high lenses, wide lenses, narrow lenses, it just depends what you prefer. With wider lens you can see more but it can make it harder to judge distances.”
Fraser is using a GoPro camera on his build with a rubber cover attached to avoid any incidents. “The casing just exploded on the last one; I smacked a goal post at about 50mph.”
It’s all just part of the hobby. “I like breaking something then fixing it,” says Calum. “You can rebuild an action camera — just take a Chinese one, take it apart, find the broken piece and put it back in the other one.” Even an old PlayStation 3 optical drive the boys found hasn’t been spared. “We wanted to scoop the laser out of it,” explains Fraser.
There’s something accessible about DIY drone racing, so long as you’re a tinkerer with a competitive streak and a fondness for flashy transport tech — regardless of age. Bannister, that champion of the first-ever World Drone Grand Prix, was just fifteen years old at the time of his win. As part of the four-person race team Tornado X-Blades, Bannister secured his victory over 150 other teams across a sprawling 561-metre track. Like eSports, drone racing is now too lucrative to be dismissed.
But outside of the crowd-filled arenas, drone racers are practising the increasingly popular hobby in locations like this abandoned warehouse in Scotland’s largest city. Their shared interests in vehicles and technology make for hours of friendly races and fiddling with the tiny machines to make them even faster and cooler.
“It’s a friendly community,” says Keiren. “Everybody helps each other out.”
All images courtesy Ewen Hosie.