By Kimberly Kwek
A black blur zips by, throttling towards a tree at full-speed. Just as a collision seems imminent, the drone dips sharply, squeezing through small gaps between the branches.
Once out of the maze of branches, it performs a series of 360-degree turns and shoots up skywards. It hovers above the field for a split second, before free-falling and stopping inches above the ground, ending the run with a graceful landing.
This show of aerial acrobatics is what one can expect to see at a first-person view (FPV) freestyle drone flying event.
Drone pilots, with their feet planted firmly on the ground, don a pair of goggles that allow them to pilot the drone from a first-person perspective through a live stream, from a camera attached to the drone.
“They (drone pilots) have a lot of obstacles to fly around and they really test their skills to make a good video with all these obstacles,” said FPV freestyle hobbyist, Rayne Toh, 24, a final-year student from the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering (EEE).
Tricks in the air
FPV freestyle flying involves manoeuvring drones around obstacles and through small openings.
The flight is judged by a panel of professional pilots and is based on three categories: difficulty of tricks, flow of flight, and the use of the course and obstacles.
There are three main difficulty levels: easy, medium and hard.
Easy tricks consist of, but are not limited to, flips, intentional ground hits or skids, and passing through large gaps slowly. Medium tricks include passing through small gaps and power loops, where the drone makes giant loops in the sky, and hard tricks involve drones flipping or rolling through tiny gaps and more.
The flight is also judged on how smoothly choreographed it is — whether the routine flows well and does not consist of just arbitrary tricks strung together.
Despite FPV freestyle flying being a relatively unknown sport in Singapore as compared to drone racing, which has burgeoned into a million-dollar industry, a group of NTU students share the passion of building their own quadcopters — a type of drone with four rotors — and flying freestyle.
One of the enthusiasts is Foo Ren Xiang, a member of the NTU Aerospace Society, a student community that focuses on UAV building and flying.
Foo explains that while drone racing involves completing an obstacle course as fast as possible, FPV freestyle flying requires pilots to perform tricks while navigating the drone through the obstacle course.
“For racing, it’s like a Formula One course where you have a specific goal — racing the same lap over and over,” said Foo, 25, a freestyle flying hobbyist.
“But in FPV, you can do things like flips, rolls, going through small gaps; basically anything you want,” added the third-year student from the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, who flies his quadcopter at least once a week.
Foo’s interest in Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) developed last May after learning about them during his lessons. He felt that flying offered a different experience from regular vehicles and allowed him to perform gravity-defying stunts.
Foo then got into FPV freestyle flying six months later. He believes the sport offers a “more thrilling” experience as compared to drone racing.
While there are few FPV freestyle flying competitions in Singapore, there are global competitions held online. To submit their entries, participants have to use a specific hashtag for the competition when they post on their social media platforms, such as Instagram, YouTube and Facebook.
Physical competitions are held more often in countries like Australia and the United States, where drone racing is more popular and widespread.
At the World Drone Prix 2016 Premiere in Dubai — one of the biggest drone competitions in the world — the winner of the freestyle category took home a prize of US$50,000. The winner for the competition’s drone race was a 15-year-old boy from the United Kingdom who bagged US$250,000.
The event drew more than 2,000 spectators, with the live stream of the event bringing in 255,000 online viewers.
Starting from scratch
Freestyle flying enthusiasts interviewed by the Nanyang Chronicle said part of their enjoyment comes from the the process of building their own drones.
For Toh, the sense of accomplishment is what makes building his own drones more enjoyable than flying those that are already built.
“It’s customised to your own liking. You know your own drone better than if you just buy it from the market,” he said.
“The performance of ready-made drones isn’t as good. One reason for me doing this is also to learn the whole system of the UAV and how to optimise it,” said Foo.
Having a background in engineering has also helped the students construct better drones as they can apply theories learnt during their courses.
But the downside is that they have to bear the cost of building the drones, as well as the damages that come along with it.
“When you crash, you try to make sure that the parts do not break or else it can be quite costly,” said Foo.
His drone cost $350 to assemble, with parts ranging from $5 for its carbon fibre frame to over $100 for its four motors. These parts were bought from online stores such as Banggood and HobbyKing.
Rapid technological advancements also require frequent upgrading of parts.
“One year later, there’s actually nothing that is the same except for the frame. The electronics and motors have changed, new software and hardware are coming out,” Foo said, referring to a particular model he started assembling last November.
The upgrading of drones varies from flyer to flyer. While Foo replaces parts of his drone every two weeks, he added that there is no fixed period to do so.
For beginners and experienced hobbyists alike, building a drone from scratch might seem daunting. But YouTube has made learning easier with various tutorial videos available that explain the technical aspects of the sport.
Mastering the routines and trick to perform, however, come with experience and experimentation.
“It’s a lot of trial and error. Every time you crash, you learn something from it and improve on it the next time,” Toh said.
Besides FPV freestyle flying, the NTU Aerospace Society also concentrates on another UAV activity — fixed-wing flying. It is more plane-based, as compared to multirotor drones, but the club has plans to shift its focus to drones this academic year.
“We realised that drones are getting more popular and you can do more things than just flying at a university level. You can do more DIY, especially for the engineering students,” said Wang Jingbin, 21, president of the NTU Aerospace Society.
But FPV freestyle flying is not the main focus of the club, which aims to organise a drone racing competition next semester.
“Freestyle flying is less popular and more difficult to pick up,” explained Wang, a third-year student from the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.
He said: “Companies like Drone Racing League (a sports and media company that organises and streams drone events) are generally not promoting freestyle (flying) so much because drone racing is more exhilarating for people to watch.”
But Foo is confident that FPV freestyle flying will eventually become more popular in Singapore.
“I think when you start flying, the key thing you want to do is tricks. Everyone already does a bit of that.”
With growing interest and participation in drone sports, FPV freestyle flying could be generating a huge buzz on our shores soon.