The UK Drone Show last year was one that stuck in the minds of many - a great first successful Expo for the UKDS crew that also featured racing demonstrations. For those of us that took part we remember it as being the place with god-awful video - which plagued many in their battle to try and be crowned the winner! With that in mind, we all signed up anyway as the racing was great fun with the early days of Rotor-Racing being in control and the UKDS guys themselves sharing a huge passion for what is also our passion. For me, it was really the event I had been waiting all summer for - having had my quadversity setup now for many months I was yet to really put it through its paces in the outdoor events we'd flown at so far. Battling against rivals on the track, vendors and a Tiny Whoop track (as modelled on the simulator), with tons of vendor stalls and entertainment all round we were ready for an epic weekend.
Here's a sneak peek of the track, designed by Brett Collis. He's really made great use of the space in here, we got to fly it in the simulator as part of an online competition prior to the event as the usual sSeries (simulator series that goes hand in hand with iSeries), and the track flows amazingly with great features in it for such a small space. We were all looking forward to see how fast we could get our laptimes compared to the sim, it's always an interesting challenge, and one that I don't normally succeed in either!
Our home for the next was a dark one, with not much lighting we had to make the best of what we could.
Familiar faces joined us to provide commentary of the racing and keep the crowd entertained for the whole weekend - Niall Sheffield and Craig aka @DroneLondon. These guys are a great laugh and provide the entertainment that events sometimes miss, filling in the gaps where need be and providing some epic race commentary. We have made their lives a little easier this weekend as everyone is required to run colour-changeable LED's so that we have distinguishable colours per race.
First steps to racing in an environment was to set your camera settings correctly. It's safe to say running normal day settings leads to a very bad picture with all of the surrounding lighting completely blown out. I would like to see anyone get around the track fast on those settings, as it's really that bad. For those going to be flying in areas like this set your AGC to Off and you'll be amazed how much difference it makes. The gates turned from white blobs of mess to being able to visually see the triangular support pattern in the trussing, as well as allow it to be viewed in colour (also force the Camera to colour, switching introduces lag).
What better way to test camera settings than to test it on your face!
With check-in's done bright and early (though not so much in here) at 8am, we got straight into practicing after that before the doors were open to the public - the plan was to get 2 rounds of practice in followed by 5 rounds of qualifying rounds, whereby 2 of them would be dropped, leaving your remaining best 3 which scored us. Of the 40 pilots attending the UK Drone Show, only 16 were set to make it through to Sunday's racing, a tough order for everyone - consistency is certainly king in racing and that is no different here.
With the public now entering including some familiar faces (hello Simon of Airjacker!), many people brought with them their own set of goggles to both watch the racing for themselves but also give the public a view of what we see when racing.
For me, practice went pretty well. I got through both rounds OK and managed to complete 5 laps in each. Some of the pilots were hitting 7 and even 8 laps so I knew I had some catching up to do - but slow and steady was my plan right now - I'm not pushing I'm relearning the quad, learning the track and getting used to the environment. For others it meant hitting gates, crashing into the netting, and if you were unfortunate then it also meant landing upside down - meaning that was it for that round.
Getting stuck in the nets was a constant battle for some, as frustration set in. The course was slightly different in the simulator whereby the back corner after the straight section had the netting much closer than in the sim, and if you were unfortunate to not realise then it would easily catch you out. For this reason I like to spectate the first few rounds of the event regardless of who is flying, just to see the course from the goggles - as it always looks very different to just watching line of sight.
Round 1 qualifying passed by as a success, I had waited on the start line so long for everyone else to go (as did everyone else LOL), it meant I had a hefty 40 second lap or there abouts with some faster ones approaching as I got the flow of the course. It looks like I made a mistake part-way through which cost me nearly 10 seconds. I think on this lap I'd managed to miss-judge the Split-S and overshot it - going right back into the net. Somehow, I had only clipped the net and came tumbling down to the floor, bouncing around until finally landing upright! I then managed to carry on a little more, and hit a gate this time, throwing me around all on the floor. Amazingly, I had managed to land upright again, and with no RX or video antennas I carried on around the course for 2 more laps at times similar to Brett and Leo. Upon finding the quad I was a little gutted I'd done so many damage so early on, but that is the way it is sometimes.
I scrambled to get my quad ready for the next round, originally trying to re-cut the active lengths of the receiver antenna using some wire strippers, I ended up using a part of the tool that was meant for even thinner wires and just cut them off even more! With a new RX (oops, I had no spares) I was nearly ready to go but decided to run the backup in the mean time as I knew it worked.
Round 2 was a frustrating one for me, after hectically trying to find my quad ready for the next round I ran into further issues. As soon as I had gone through the first gate only 10 meters away I had near complete video loss, going further round ended up in complete loss. There was definitely something interfering on the channel which meant I had to sit out. I tried multiple times to take off but there was no picture at all, not on the big screen, not on my crazy quadversity groundstation, and not on the provided groundstations either. Grounded, you might say.
Others were experiencing other issues as well, seeing tiny whoops on their screen at times from the demo area on the other side of the show. We were surprised at how clear some of the picture was at times when our quads were not powered up, you could make everything out! Others, like this quad, found obstacles on the course that limited their flying times :)
Not only trussing, but the signposts on the gates were popular targets for our quads, munching through!
Opposite the pilot seating area and race control was a large screen with a great 4-way video where the audience could view the action and see exactly what kind of video we had to put up with. Everyone was extremely impressed with how well we managed to navigate the course considering how shocking the picture is. Truth be told is that when we have multipathing (the lines that go across the screen), we actually just get used to it because they are pretty consistent, and you can fly through it as if it isn't even there. The issues we get are when we get giant colour shifts or screen flickering, no matter how hard you are concentrating on the 2rd or 3rd gate ahead, it will always throw you off.
We had an 'interesting' article (to say the least) written about the racing - 'pale young men' was one of the comments that stands out to me, a rather derogatory and also racist comment (there was far worse in the article too). Anyway, I'd just like to point out some of us had tans, and we are all a close-knit community from all backgrounds and walks of life. Tan harder Marc!!!
Here's Leo and Aqil getting mentally prepared for their next race. We can seeing they're training hard, at least Leo is!
For my third qualifying run I knew I had to focus and really pull something out of the bag. I felt disappointed with how I was performing so far and knew I had way more to give but had many missed opportunities from silly mistakes and stuff that was just out of my control
Curse of the Tiny Whoop strikes again for some of the people trying to get their qualifying rounds in. To be honest, most of the time it was not an issue, we can only assume it was down to people bringing them to the show and not being on 25mW.
For me, I managed to focus and just stay smooth and consistent, bagging the laps where I needed. After landing I was greeted with the news that I'd managed to do 7 laps - 2 above my previous best - bumping me up to 5th place! I was now relatively secure in the top 16, but wanted to do the same again in my next run to get a feel for the track, each time we fly we get faster, so staying consistent is key. Not crashing out is not just important for these rounds, but for the ones ahead - every single lap completed is further skill development on that course as we get faster and faster!
Luckily for me, I'd managed to do what I had hoped again - a 7 lapper! I was still a relatively large amount of time behind Leo in the time it took to do those 7 laps (an extra 11 seconds), but I was at least on the same laps now!
With the qualifying finished we waited to hear the announcement of who would be flying tomorrow, while the rest were free to do whatever they wanted. I had made it into the top 16, and quite a way up the board. Others who had not made it into the final knockouts now got to enjoy the show, others went to go and fly around the local area and just enjoy the rest of their day.
With everyone feeling refreshed and ready to start, the quarter final groups were announced with Tom Smith (YEAHLAD!), Philip Trifunovic (Pboy) and Marc Booth (PaleAle) being in my groups it felt like another death group. Everyone is getting faster and faster, and so when we make it to the knockouts there's no real safe groups anymore, especially this one.
Each group was given one practice run before the knockouts started so that we were used to flying again after the 12 hour break, where I'd done the whole 7 laps again and felt confident going into the quarter finals. We were in the first of the quarter finals so I was glad to be able to get it out the way, just in case we did have any accident I'd have a good amount of time to fix the quad, but it also helps to stop build up the nerves when you are sat around waiting to see who goes through.
Now I'd found my mojo again, and was used to the backup quad, I did exactly the same I had been doing in my final qualification rounds - banking those laps. Tom Smith was ahead of my and my spotter had mentioned that the other 2 competitors had crashed out so again I was just banking the laps to get that all important track practice. Because two of us go through there's no point at all pushing here, you fly to the race pace.
Going into the semi-finals was a similar story to the quarter finals - death groups. I'd be placed with Brett Collis, Richard Whelan and James Bowles. I'd been spotting for Rich throughout qualifying and he had got some great battles in with James as they had been flying at the same pace so far throughout the competition. The initial start was not great for me, being last off the line I knew I had a lot of making up to do if I wanted to make it through to the finals. Going into the second lap I was still in last place but sitting comfortably behind Richard and James battling it out, waiting for that all-important gap to take. That was until they had a collision, which saw both of them crash out - Rich had managed to get back up but by that point he'd lost around 5 seconds off of the race pace. I continued on doing the same sort of laps I was doing before (though only managed to complete 6 this time after a slow first few laps), and made it through in second place with Brett 5 seconds ahead and Richard just 10 seconds behind me.
Somehow I'd made it. After a rocky first day and having a very rough few previous competitions (these things seem to happen in spouts), I was feeling pretty down about the whole racing thing, and wondering if I was still a good pilot or not. A string of bad luck can certainly get you down, and with a wake up call in the morning I'd decided to just go and have fun, something that sometimes can get missed when you're trying to win. The chilled out approach (and one that I had taken at many other events) was starting to work again, so going into the finals I didn't feel nervous or pressured, to me it was just going to be fun whatever happened.
With the other semi-finals taking place just after mine (I was lucky and got to go first again), me and Brett were now joined by Oli Peters and Leo Whitfield. Oli had some pretty unfortunate crashes throughout the weekend (as did others) and managed to break 2 of his own quads, and was now on his brothers backup (I believe Dan broke his own main quad too), which was very much untested!
Crowds filled the entire spectator section and around the screen to witness what should be the best race of the day with the fastest and most consistent pilots making it through, it was surely set to be a great race.
It was hard not to be nervous right about now going into the finals, whether I was trying to keep my cool or not. I was planning my own game plan of doing exactly what I had done so far, but a little bit faster. So, the camera angle was notched up a few more degrees in the hope that I'd pick up the pace a bit more, I felt a little limited on the previous runs by it, but I was also playing it safe to ensure I got through to where I wanted to be.
Here's my view from the finals and how the action went down.
If it wasn't clear from the video, I'd managed to take second place!! I had a bit of a slow start off the line again but just took my time on the first few laps getting into a rhythm, my first lap is always majorly slow and it was no different here. I was comfortably sat in third as Oli had crashed out on the first lap, and in just over 2 laps Leo had also crashed out, leaving just me and Brett left in it.
Warren (my spotter) just said to me "right push, its just you two left" - and that was my call to do what I'd been wanting to do all weekend - push! I never usually get the chance to, as I think racing always happens at about 80% of the speed you are comfortable with, so that you do not make any mistakes, but right here, I had nothing to lose. For the next 2 laps I had managed to shave around 3 seconds off of Brett and was within inches of him going into the Split-S where it appeared I was faster. Frustratingly in my 5th lap had a bit of a mess-up where I was a little too close to a gate and that had thrown me off, so I went back to the comfortable laps I was used to - albeit a bit quicker now with the increased camera angle!
And that was it, over the finish line with only 1.63 seconds in it, I'd managed to not only beat my own bad luck, hardware issues and frustrations, but come in 2nd place doing it. I really couldn't have been any happier about the position I had finished in, I was ecstatic. I also had absolutely no bad feelings towards Brett either who had managed to stay ahead the whole time, as we landed a mandatory fist bump came out and we could now chill!
I knew Brett had been gaining a ton of speed recently from his constant practice and was keeping up with Gary and Luke in their weekend sessions, which for me is a bit of a worry as I'd only just really caught him up. With the lack of practice due to weather, winter hours and broken quads the event was really a make or break for me in terms of sticking with it or just taking it easier next year. From now until the end of the show I held the biggest smile of everyone!
With the prize ceremony done early, we now moved on to the racing I was really looking forward to - the Connex Cup. As I mentioned right at the start, we all knew going into the racing that video issues would probably plague a few people, and would cost people races at the most crucial times, but that is just one of the things you put up with at the NEC in order to still have fun when it does go well. With Connex, we were hoping to finally be rid of that pain - tests out in the field and watching videos on YouTube had shown that multi-pathing was non-existent due to the digital transmission which blocked out any unwanted data - this was really a crucial part of the flying which should transform indoor events. There's obviously also the bonus that we'll be viewing video in at least 720i, upwards from the 480p we're used to.
Sadly none of us had the hardware for it, but HP+ has now just been released which is a combination of the "Performance" (HP) and "Quality" (HQ) mode which aims to fill the needs of everyone with having full Quality 720p video, but at the 60fps that Performance gives (HQ mode is only 30). I'm still super excited to see how this mode is, everything I've read so far seems to have no drawbacks, but sadly most of us had to run in HP mode, which is still good, but we lose some of the finer details. Still, it's better than analog regardless!!!
On the video wall there was not a single sign of breakup or multi-pathing around, it just looked insane!
On the plus note, Cinemizer had kindly given the organisers some sets of their OLED goggles of which I'd been testing for the 2 weeks prior to the event (and OH MY GOD they are amazing on the sim), these were fantastic to use and the picture quality of them is just insane. They do fog up if you haven't let them acclimatize, but putting them on your head for a few minutes before a race seemed to solve that issue pretty easily.
Here's some of my arguably rubbish flying around the track on my Connex setup. I was much slower than analog due to switching goggles, quad and transmitter - all of which are a big change. Most notably, I'd now learnt that the Turnigy Evolution sticks do not have enough tension compared to what I am used to on the Taranis and I had a tendency to overshoot every input I gave.
There's some weird stutter and signal issues that ruined the video for me - we think there were 2 issues going on here. I'd used Brett's DVR which apparently had some write issues to the memory stick (in the places where it completely skips a few frames), and the blotchyness appears to be from the new Beta antenna I was using. It was just me and Richard Whelan using this antenna (sadly he did not fly), but looking at the signal bar throughout the video we can see it drops. A little annoying, as the antenna was using the stock mount it comes with and it had a clear path to the receivers at all times, so I'll be reverting back to the original antenna for sure. Other people were getting better pictures strapping the bigger, original plates to their frame arms and battery.
However, regardless of the issues above, what a joy to fly. Many of the people who had flown earlier were now beating their lap times on their first rounds in digital - showing how much of a benefit it can be having clear video without having to dodge the issues when flying!
We didn't have a full tournament, but we did run 1 round of practice followed by 3 rounds of flying whereby whoever got the fastest/most laps in a single round was declared the winner - Brett won again!! :P
On behalf of all the pilots, thanks to everyone who took part, came to spectate and most importantly those guys who were organising it, doing the little odds and ends behind the scenes and everything else that made it into one of my favourite races of the year, closely behind Queens Cup! I sadly didn't get to see much of the rest of the show due to the constant racing (first world problems huh?), but it looked like it was a great one :)
Special thanks to Jon and Adam for taking up the role of race control without that much experience - we were a little worried going into it due to all of the challenges we faced at the NEC last time, but these guys did an absolutely awesome job and it was one of the most smooth-running events I've been to! I obviously have to thank Oli for believing in the racing community and allowing us to race again at Europe's largest drone expo, speaking with members of the public outside of the racing it's clear to see how people who do not even like racing sports quickly got hooked on watching the action.
Cheers to Julian Whitfield for the pictures again and Niall Sheffield for the cover photo, much appreciated :)