Tech Recipe: Starting A Scholastic Drone Racing Team

CDFS-1576
Community Development
Date: 
12/12/2019
Meghan Thoreau, Extension Educator, Community Development, Ohio State University Extension, Pickaway County

Schools interested in starting a drone racing team may have some basic questions, such as, “Is drone racing legal?”, “When did drone racing start?”, “How does drone racing work?” This fact sheet is written in a recipe format to provide simple how-to guidance for prospective schools and teachers who want to learn more about what it takes to start a drone racing team, such as materials and people needed, the skill building benefits scholastic teams offer, equipment cost estimates, online resources, and instruction on how to develop a practice schedule and racing events.

Three images of drone racing, including a control, the drone and a racecourse

Why drones? Scholastic drone teams propel lifelong learners. Student teams encourage and build enjoyment, teamwork, curiosity, critical thinking, courage, and creativity.

Ingredients

Team

  • 1-2 participating teacher/sponsors
  • 10-12 participating students
 

Materials

  • 4 drone starter kits, minimum
  • 4 spare part kits, minimum (consumable parts, e.g., motors, propellers)
  • 1 basic obstacle course pack
  • 1 indoor practice location (e.g., a gymnasium)
  • 1 timing system, optional
  • 3D printer, optional (use to print consumable parts and frames)

Prep Time: Commitment

The time commitment spans over a two-to-three-month period per season. Depending on interest, there can be both a fall and spring season. Sponsors should plan, per season, for

  • 1-2 hours per week for building and practicing 
  • 2-3 hours for intra-school races and time-trials (expect to host at least two to three events)
  • 4-6 hours for inter-school races (try to participate in at least two events)
  • 8-hours for a final tournament (once, at the end of the season) (Nickley & Costello, 2019a)

Difficulty Level—Easy to Start set of three dots, first one filled in with red to show ease of use.

No prior drone piloting experience is necessary. Drone racing has an easy entry point, but increases in difficulty as it requires continued commitment, critical thinking, troubleshooting, and piloting skills. A new drone team learns more each practice and advances each season. The more a team practices and competes, the more experience is gained. Competitive racing events are the best learning opportunities to intermingle newer drone pilots with experienced drone pilots. Teacher/sponsors also greatly benefit from talking to and learning from each other at racing events.

Improving Students’ Skill Set 

  • Real-world application
  • 21st-century success skills
  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Leading by influence
  • Agility and adaptability
  • Troubleshooting
  • Initiative and entrepreneurialism
  • Effective oral, written, and digital communication
  • Accessing and analyzing information
  • Curiosity, imagination, and innovation
  • Organization and collaboration

The Benefits

Aerial drones offer a new perspective with applications that cut across the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), as well as agriculture, logistics, emergency management, health, film, media, military, transportation, sports, journalism, and more. Drone technology is rapidly becoming an incredibly versatile tech-tool for today’s workforce. Drones Change Everything, a visual presentation on how drones are impacting all sectors of the workforce (Thoreau, 2019).

Drone racing is “the carrot” that lures youth into the elaborate world of aerial robotics (and other robotics and STEM learning) by providing a robust and immersive learning experience that simultaneously builds connections to technology career pathways (OnPoynt, 2018). The incentive of competitive drone racing (formalized into a scholastic drone racing team) exposes students to technology and hands-on problem-solving opportunities to design, build, modify, and rebuild—employing 21st century skills and use of technology to meet the demands of today’s workforce. 

Presentation slide image from Meghan Thoreau with drones flying and a simulated ipad interface with nine boxes in different colors.

Measuring Up

Starting Point

Drone racing began in Australia in 2013 with a number of amateur pilots getting together for semi-organized races in Brisbane and Melbourne. Since then, recreational and competitive drone racing has grown into scholastic drone clubs and competitive drone racing leagues that are propelling the tech sport industry—both in post-secondary and K-12 schools.

Drone racing organizations are just getting started in the United States. For example, Safety Third Racing (S3R), founded in 2015 in New Jersey, is a nationally recognized first-person view (FPV) drone racing organization which supports a diverse community of drone makers and pilots in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, advancing the FPV sport through inclusive education, open innovation, and competitive racing (Safety Third Racing, 2019). Buckeye FPV Racing is another drone racing group in Central Ohio that enjoys drone racing and supporting other FPV enthusiasts who seek advice, sharing information, and resources to promote the sport in their local communities (Buckeye FPV Racing, 2019). Drones in School organization opened its first inaugural year in 2018-19 and is another new scholastic drone organization registering school drone engineering teams in Ohio (Drones in School, 2019). The benefits of FPV racing organizations are that they create shared regulations and rules that support drone racing teams and promote organized competitions. Wikipedia provides an active inventory of drone organizations both in the United States, but more prominently a list of international drone leagues and major international drone racing events to date (Wikipedia contributors, 2019).

In 2016, the annual MultiGP (MGP) Championship was held at the Academy of Model Aeronautics headquarters in Muncie, Indiana where over 120 pilots competed by qualifying through the MultiGP Regional Series, which consists of qualifying events and regional finals in 15 regions across the United States (MultiGP, 2017). That same year, Drone Racing League (DRL) launched their first season hosting five professional racing events across the United States; 16 pilots competed (one racing event was held at a paper mill in Hamilton, Ohio) (Wikipedia contributors, 2019). DRL’s first season racing was broadcast in 40 countries with more than 75 million fans enjoying “the sport of the future” (Long, 2019).

In 2017, the Purdue University Drone Club hosted their first ever Collegiate Drone Racing Championship (Purdue University, 2017) at the Intramural Gold Fields (Purdue University, 2018). In 2018, Northeast Ohio had 13 drone racing teams form to start Ohio’s first ever competitive inter-school drone racing league, known as S3 Racing Academy. S3 Racing Academy has continued to support and develop resource guides to assist scholastic drone racing teams (Nickley & Costello, 2019b). The following year, more schools in Central Ohio joined S3 Racing Academy. Circleville City Schools, St. Francis DeSales, Linden-McKinley STEM Academy all started high school drone racing teams in 2019 (Zachariah, 2019).

Figure 3. Video of Circleville City Schools District drone racing team video highlight, by Meghan Thoreau, retrieved from: youtu.be/ITxWx-4jQXU.

Immersive Experience

Drone pilots race their drones around a three-dimensional obstacle course using first-person view (FPV) goggles. A racing drone includes a small video camera and radio transmitters. The drone is paired with goggles and a controller that enables a pilot to view a drone flight path in first-person, then maneuver the drone through an obstacle course accordingly (OnPoynt, 2018). Skilled pilots fly quad-copter drones at speeds ranging from standstill to 120 mph. Racing drones are custom built for speed, agility, and performance (Drone Racing League, 2019).

Image of a quad-copter drone with four propellers, camera and wiring

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Guidance

It is legal to fly a drone for educational purposes provided the school follows Educational Users FAA Guidance (Federal Aviation Administration, 2019a). Sponsors will only have to register any drones weighing more than 0.55 pounds (250 grams) and label them as the FAA describes (Federal Aviation Administration, 2019b). Only one drone registration number is needed but ALL drones must be labeled with that number. For more information visit FFA’s website and review Operate a Drone, Start a Drone Program (Federal Aviation Administration, 2019c) and Recreational Flyers and Modeler Community-based Organizations (Federal Aviation Administration, 2019d). Teachers or sponsors do not need to have a drone pilot’s license (called a Remote Pilot’s or Part 107 license), but there are obvious benefits from going through the licensing program (Federal Aviation Adminstration, 2019e). The more a sponsor knows, the better guidance they provide to their team (OnPoynt, 2019). 

Blue logo with letters B4UFLY inside with shadow image of quad-copter drone.
Logo for LAANC, blue hexagon with lighter blue squares inside.

At a university, it is recommended to work through administration to make sure campus security and risk management are involved in the process. Recent updates to the law and regulation require extra checks. For example, for outdoor racing, a sponsor should check the FAA’s online map to determine if the location is within 5 miles of an airport (Federal Aviation Adminstration, 2019f).

The FAA recently redeveloped their mobile app, B4UFLY. The app is available to download for free at the App Store for iOS and Google Play store for Android. The FAA application provides situational awareness to recreational flyers and other drone users. The app does not allow users to obtain airspace authorizations to fly in controlled airspace, which are only available through the FAA's Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) (Federal Aviation Adminstration, 2019g), but the app does provide handy features like

  • a clear “status” indicator that informs the operator whether it is safe to fly or not
  • informative, interactive maps with filtering options
  • information about controlled airspace, special use airspace, critical infrastructure, airports, national parks, military training routes, and temporary flight restrictions
  • the ability to check whether it is safe to fly in different locations by searching for a location or moving the location pin
  • links to other FAA drone resources and regulatory information (Federal Aviation Administration, 2019h)

School campus greens, baseball, football, soccer, and even tennis courts are great locations to set up an outdoor drone racecourse. To avoid FAA requirements completely, start flying indoors in the school gymnasium. While FAA rules do not apply for indoor drone users, common sense safety rules still remain. In fact, many scholastic drone racing teams and leagues race microdrones, which are small, lightweight, and designed for indoor racing. As students’ interest and drone skills develop, more elaborate outdoors racing competitions can be planned and developed.

Image of a drone racecourse, one inside and two in a school gym.

 

How-to Directions

Student Teams and Racing Drones

A drone racing team requires at least 10-12 participating students and one to two teacher sponsors or team coaches that have some technical skill, enthusiasm, and want to promote team learning, running a practice schedule, and hosting inter-school drone racing events. One drone starter kit supports two to three student pilots who essentially share a single drone. While one student is piloting a drone, another student can be their “spotter,” which is a person who keeps track of the drone by line of sight while the pilot flies via FPV. A spotter can let the pilot know about hazards that may be out of their field of view through the goggles. Another student can be their “flipper,” which is a person who runs to a micro-drone that has flipped upside down and needs to be flipped upright again. Teams will have many new terms, roles, and drone racing etiquette to learn. Air Drone Craze is one of several sites that provide a thorough Quick Reference Guide of Drone Terminology online (Air Drone Craze, 2019).

Team startup requires a minimum of four drone kits and four spare part kits. An official obstacle course requires at least two gates, three flags, one start/finish, and four launch pads. Course requirements may vary depending on the type of course layout and purpose. A time trial race layout, for example, is typically less elaborate than a tournament racetrack layout, which may contain more flag and gate obstacles to challenge drone pilots. Course guides like, Course Design: Building a Challenging and Interesting Racing Circuit on Propwash, provide an easy to follow how to construct a racecourse that is appropriately challenging, feels fast, and fun to fly (Niggel, 2019). A racecourse can also be standardized and shared to allow multiple teams to compete and rank in the same competition, but race in different geographic locations.

LED lighting is typically added to the course to illuminate pathways and obstacles for a better FPV racing experience.

Budget Breakdown

Total Startup

The following provides a breakdown of tech supplies, kits, and tools required to support a drone racing league. A few additional considerations are listed as a team becomes more established and may want to invest in upgrades. The budget does not include transportation costs to racing events or additional replacement parts that may be required. Total startup cost estimated between $2,000 to $4,000 to support a league sharing four drones.

Close up of hands holding a drone remote and contents of a drone kit with a white controller, black bag and various pieces.

Drone Starter Kits

Drone types and team protocols may vary. If there is a drone organization or school team already established, learn what types of drones they are racing, as certain standards are usually set for competitive drone racing events. Remember one drone starter kit supports two to three pilots. Look for starter kits that include some of the following: FPV goggles, radio controller, flight controller FrSky Control Protocol, FPV camera/video transmitter stack (e.g., NewBeeDrone AcroBee), eight motors (two sets) (6mm, brushed), 20 (two sets of 10) propellers, two cockroach heavy duty frames, four flight batteries (1S, 230mah), one flight battery multi-charger, one flight battery checker, and one travel case (e.g., AcroBee) (Nickley & Costello, 2019c). Estimated cost: $100 – $300 per starter kit.

Consumable Spare Parts

Extra motors and propellers make up the main consumable spare parts required for a season. Expect the following consumables per drone per season: eight motors (two sets) (6mm, brushed), 20 propellers (two sets of 10), four flight batteries, and two cockroach heavy duty frames (Nickley & Costello, 2019c). Estimated cost: $50 – $60 per drone per season.

Image of two kids getting ready to race drones and advisor behind a TV screen.

Obstacle Racecourse

An official obstacle racecourse requires at least: two gates, three flags, one start/finish, and four launch pads, but course layouts vary. There are several do-it-yourself obstacles builds online that may reduce costs but requires purchasing hardware and reserving time to build (Nickley & Costello, 2019d). Estimated cost: $300 - $500 per pack; separately gate sets cost $100 – $400, 6-foot slalom flags cost $40 – $90, 100 field markers cost $20, boundary flags cost $10, and LED hoops cost $50 – $75.

Drone battery charger with four prongs

Drone Batteries

There are lots of different types of drone batteries available, but racing drones usually use lithium polymer (LiPo) batteries for power. LiPo batteries have higher capacities, which allows them to hold more power, have higher discharge rates allowing faster power transfer, and are lighter and can be made in different shapes and sizes—all important considerations when racing drones (Brewster, 2018). There are many online resources that provide in-depth reviews of quadcopter batteries, such as DroneOmega (DroneOmega, 2019). Batteries: $15 – $70 each.

LiPo Safe Bag

There are also some added safety protocols when using LiPo batteries to reduce the risk of a battery failure, ensure longer battery life, and better performance (Battery University, 2019). Learn the right and wrong ways to charge, use, and care for LiPo batteries. Charging requires some supervision. Do not plug drone batteries in overnight or leave them in a classroom charging alone for hours. Most battery failure and fire incidents occur during charging time. The safest place to charge a drone battery is outside. If outside is not possible, charge batteries inside on cinder blocks and keep a bucket of sand nearby to extinguish flames or purchase a fireproof explosion-proof LiPo safe bag for charging. Additionally, an exploding battery gives off toxic gases, which can be dangerous in enclosed spaces. Keep batteries out of the sun to avoid overheating and away from dried plants and other combustibles. Lipo Battery Bag: $10 – $15 each.

Battery Chargers

There are also many different types of battery chargers, such as single-, dual-, and quad-output chargers. Seek out multifunction chargers that have easy-to-use features and report out battery charging and maintenance tasks. Make sure the specifications match the battery type and have the right output and discharge amps. Charger: $20 – $50 each.

Tools

Building and repairing drones requires tools such as: pliers, needle nose pliers, soldering irons, screwdrivers, Allen wrenches, electrical tape, wire cutters, hot glue gun, custom case pouch (for zip ties, screws, etc.), prop tool, 2.5mm Hex driver, 2.0mm Hex driver, 1.5mm Hex driver, Phillips screwdriver, side cutters, fine tip tweezers, scissors, file set, multimeter and measurement, helping hand tool holder, magnetic screw tray, tool box, etc. Drone race tool kit: $20 – $150 each.

Drone Organizations

Join a local drone racing league/organization if it exists in your area. Drone organizations can offer additional benefits such as team rankings, inventorying stats, team promoting, centralizing communications, standardizing racing equipment, providing technical support, organizing race events, providing professional development, and administrating overhead. Estimated registration: $500 – $1000 per season.

Computer with timing system attached, with multiple cords and controls.

 
Timing System (optional)

Speed and lap completion are critical components to racing competitions and ranking pilots. Having an accurate timing system is also important to measure pilot improvements in technical skills over a season. Three to four pilots typically race against each other in any given competition. Limiting the number of pilots per race is also necessary to avoid exceeding radio frequencies allocated to completion and ensuring accurate lap times. 

Timing systems require a laptop to run along with hardware and software. Older systems use infrared light emitting diode (IR LED) lights on each drone. Newer timing systems use the video transmitter on each drone to collect timing data. Contact a local drone racing organization that may have a timing system and is willing to partner for school scrimmages or competitive racing events. Owning a timing system is very optional for new drone racing teams and can involve a high learning curve if sponsors are not familiar with the technology or the process involved. Drone race timing system: $500 – $1000 each.

Additional Considerations

This budget does not cover transportation, additional replacement equipment, or extra parts that might break beyond the expected consumables. As a drone pilot gains more experience, they often invest in upgrades, such as better tools, FPV goggles, LED obstacle courses, 3D printer, controller, toolbox, protective drone bag, etc. Upgrades, tool cost: $50 – $75; controller: $60 – 140 each to upgrade controller; FPV goggles: $60 – $250 each; LED obstacle course lighting and hoops: $100 – $250; 3D printer: $1200, drone simulation flight software: $50 – $250.

Table 1. Table of total cost estimate to start a drone racing team.
Description Estimated Cost
Starter drone kit $100 – $300/kit
Consumable spare parts $50 – $60/drone/season
Obstacle pack $300 – $500/pack
Lithium polymer (LiPo) battery $15 – $70/battery
LiPo battery bag $10 – $15/bag
Battery charger $40 – $250/charger
Drone racing league registration $650 – $1000/season
Timing system $500 – $1000/system
Tools $20 – $150, varies
Additional considerations varies

Start “Droning”

Scholastic drone racing is an interactive way to engage all kinds of students. This new tech sport builds 21st century skills and exposes students to the growing technology career pathways. As students build and race drones, they may not realize they are also learning about physics, electronics, aerodynamics, and a whole multitude of STEM-related topics in the process. Students will enter into months of practicing, building, repairing, flying, fixing, and learning. Actual flying is fun, but in reality, only takes up a small component of time in drone racing—do not underestimate the amount of time spent fixing and troubleshooting versus time spent racing.

Schools that see the benefit in this are starting drone teams and competing with other schools. With the recipe above and a little dedication, more schools will join in the revival of aviation through supporting drone piloting and a passion for technology and flight.

 

References

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