I Watched a Drone Break the World Speed Record
163.5 mph is very, very fast for a quadcopter.
The drone fell out of the sky and caught on fire. Ryan Gury, the pilot, watched as several technicians ran out across the field to grab it. "Damn it," he said.
Thankfully, Gury, the director of product at the Drone Racing League (DRL), had seven other RacerX drones, a host of battery packs, and tons of spare parts to work with at Cunningham Park in Queens. And plenty of time: Another four hours or so would pass on Monday before the DRL broke the world record for the fastest ground speed of a battery-powered quadcopter.
By the afternoon, the DRL team had clocked a high speed of 163.5 mph, establishing a ceiling for drone enthusiasts around the world.
The record is new—the Drone Racing League was the first to attempt it with Guinness World Records. In order to get in the book, they had to fly faster than 125 mph two times over a straight 100 meter course. They were required to fly the course in both directions, to account for varied wind conditions or any kind of fluke.
An average speed of the two runs was then calculated for the official record. Since the record time represents an average, it obscures the fact that I watched Gury and his team get their drone to a seriously impressive top speed of 179 mph.
That's pretty damn fast when you consider that commercially available drones, like the DJI Phantom 4, can only go up to 44.7 mph (one company claims theirs can go up to 85 mph, but it isn't on the market yet). DIY racing drones can be much faster, but most top out at around 100 mph. Some claim to have made drones that can fly almost as fast as DRL's, however. YouTuber Ryan L, for example, says he's flown a drone 154.5 mph.
Gury, and drone racing, have come a long way since Motherboard met him at a hastily organized DIY drone race on a snowy day in 2015. But Gury still flies FPV (first-person view) drones, which let the pilot see what the drone sees. When you fly, you wear a pair of goggles through which you view the drone's camera footage in real time.
Throughout the day, the DRL team attempted to break the record three separate times and conducted a number of test flights.They flew more than a dozen times because it's incredibly hard to get a drone to go really fast, especially because it can be difficult to establish what went wrong when it flies slower than expected.
One thing drone pilots can do is change the "tune" of their device, or the way the software programs interact with each other. Adjusting the tune "changes how the flight controller interacts with the motor and the whole system," explained Brandon Alvarez, a technician at the DRL. Over the course of the day, the team switched between two different tunes.
A drone's tune can be tough to get right. It's hard to predict exactly how all of the components will work together. "To be honest, I'm always surprised with what we get," Gury said. "The mystery is the relationship between the parts."
By establishing the world record, the Drone Racing League has likely tempted a whole host of racers to go out and build a drone that can beat them. "There are a number of applications already submitted," said Philip Robertson, the adjudicator from Guinness World Records who witnessed the attempt.
When the DRL's drone flew across the field at almost 179 mph at the end of the day, I could barely see it. When an aircraft so small is moving at such a high speed, it can be impossible to pinpoint. Suddenly, Gury was gently landing it in the grass not far from the team.
Gury quickly removed the drone's GPS reader and handed it to Trevor Smith, the DRL's head of technical operations. He went to his car to upload the data to a laptop, before coming back with the news. The team was shocked at how fast the drone flew. In tests, it had gone only around 158 mph.
"It's amazing Ryan," Nick Horbaczewski, the chief executive and founder of the Drone Racing League said. "Yeah, it's pretty cool," Gury sheepishly replied.