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Drone Racing: Getting Kids Started


Interview with Holly Kasun, Co-Founder of Flybrix



SAN FRANCISCO BASED FLYBRIX™ IS COMBINING TWO VERY, VERY FUN THINGS: DRONES AND LEGO.

As the only Make Your Own Drone Kit using LEGO® Bricks currently on the market we chatted with Holly Kasun, CMO and Co-Founder of Flybrix, about how drone racing can inspire kids and teens to take up an interest in drone technology plus Airmaggedon and how education can, as it turns out, be a whole lot of fun.

 

Hi Holly, thanks for speaking with us. How child friendly is the drone racing landscape at present? What can be done to improve this?

Holly Kasun at Flybrix: As a sport, drone racing is still so new. It’s comparable to the likes of skateboarding, which, when it started was loose groups of  dispersed of enthusiasts who bought enthusiastically into the overall idea. They’d get together in small tribes and try things that would make their sport real through trial and error. I’ve been lucky enough to have my friend Natas Kapas, a pioneer in the history of skateboarding, talk to me about this very topic.

As the equipment and aspects of the sport mature, what “works” gets adopted by other tribes. The foundation of the overall sport solidifies fairly quickly. That’s what we’re seeing with drone racing, it’s the same evolutionary arc. It remains to be seen if it turns out to stick or if it falls by the wayside as a trend, but its prospects are looking good.

Today kids are being exposed to drone racing in a variety of ways. This is happening through RC and drone enthusiast parents, thrilling online videos of FPV racing from the likes of the Drone Racing League and plenty more. In addition to this, educators, robotics clubs, maker spaces and events like Maker Faire and RoboGames are all helping push a younger generation towards drones and their sporting potential.

Overall the drone racing community is extremely welcoming to kids because drone racing appeals to people’s passions and interests regardless of age.

The gap for getting kids to actually participate in drone racing comes in with the education for how to build and fly drones. There’s a tremendous amount of knowledge that goes into understanding how drones work, from flying them in acro mode, to getting into racing, and to figuring out how to build. There are some RTF (ready to fly) drones that exist, but serious competitors leapfrog those models for custom builds pretty quickly.

Simply, getting kids into drone racing is all about education. Providing an educational pathway with approachable technology and equipment is what will help kids the most. This is in addition to connecting knowledgeable enthusiasts who can share their expertise and open the sport up to more of this eager, younger generation.

FlyBrix is the only LEGO based drone kit on the market presently. What other kid friendly products are out there? Are there enough of them?

Holly: Flybrix is uniquely suited as an ideal entry point for those learning about drones.

The building and reconfiguring aspects of the kit, opening up all the data from sensors, motors, and electronics, expose all the things one needs to learn for drone racing. Moreover, the drones you can build with the kits are light, small and relatively low powered making them the perfect equipment to learn how to fly. This is much safer than jumping right to large, heavier, high powered “RTF” drones.

It sets kids up to learn the fundamentals, equipping them to take it to the next level for drone racing.

We’ve seen some other products on the market that also can be used as learning platforms. Parrot has a few suitable RTF drone models and earthbound robotics kits such as those found in the Arduino community; Radio Shack and Sparkfun for example. Of course the earthbound kits leave a bit to be desired because they don’t fly. That said, working with robotics kits does provide a basis for building and controlling machinery.

Airmageddon is a new show, which debuted last month in the UK, aimed at pitting teams of children against one another in drone related challenges. Is this an example of the UK scene leading by example and can we expect to see major networks worldwide embracing drone sports in the near future?

Holly: Airmageddon is definitely cutting edge in terms of broadcasting drone racing to a mainstream audience. It’s a natural extension of earthbound robotics competitions like BattleBots, and it’s easy to draw the parallel to the early days of The X Games. I believe we’ll see more of this type of content in the future. For mainstream broadcasters to produce and show drone racing, it’s about working out the best spectator viewing experience, and one that’s appropriate for families.

Drones are hard to see via line of sight viewing when they’re going through courses, especially on outdoor tracks. In many cases it’s hard to keep young people's attention while watching this way. The question then becomes how to make FPV (First Person View) content that is immersive for people not wearing the headsets or goggles to watch? The quality of the video stream needs to be improved so races can be visually compelling to watch on a screen, giving audiences a close approximation to the immersive experience pilots get when they’re wearing the headsets.

There’s no question that flying robots is hot right now and there’s plenty of room for this to grow.

Another sector to watch out for is VR technology. I have a sense that this will be a place where we’ll see the type of innovation that can elevate the spectator experience of watching drone racing.

One part of FlyBrix which is particularly intriguing is the opensource Github flight control software. Can you tell us more about that?

Holly: The flight control software is the magic of Flybrix. This is because the airframes are reconfigurable. In order to get a new airframe flying, motors have to be tuned and adjustments have to be made with inputs like power, thrust etc. We designed our flight controls to make it approachable for people to not only get their airframes airborne, but to learn more about how the process works. This is especially applicable for people interested in drone racing.

Originally the Flybrix platform was developed as an internal tool so we could understand what was happening with the sensors and motors while we prototyped. It didn’t take much for it to be obvious to us that we should open this up to to everyone so that they could benefit too.

Admittedly, our software on the Flybrix Github is pretty raw. We’re going to be putting a ton of time and energy into it in the coming months to shape it further to make it more user friendly.

There are a number of junior pilots gaining some presence in the drone racing scene such as Zero and teenager Banni UK – who just won $250,000 at the World Drone Prix. What will it take for schools to embrace this technology from an educational and sporting perspective? Is the establishment of school leagues a possibility?

Holly: We are seeing this to a degree already in the U.S. within robotics clubs in the school system, camps and clubs that are outside the school system, as well as in maker communities. The main hurdle is of course everyone’s concern with safety. Powerful motors, big blades, and larger airframes are inherently dangerous. It’s about gearing the equipment to the skill level and the environment pilots are flying their drones.

For schools in particular to embrace this sport, it will take implementing an arc where kids first learn about the machinery and equipment. The next step is learning how to fly. Once those two aspects of drones are tackled, then it’s a natural evolution to pushing the limits by challenging students to explore what can be done with building and flying these robots.

With that said, the real heart of getting drone racing into schools is the educators. It takes adults who are passionate and knowledgeable about this to show kids the path for them to get involved. Kids fundamentally know what they want to do and may have the idea of “this is so cool, I want to race drones”, but struggle with putting the steps together to do so. That’s where the educators and evangelists play a big role. They’re the ones who fill in those gaps and keep kids moving along the path to involvement and accomplishment.

In response to Luke Bannister’s achievement, congrats to Banni on the win! An incredible accomplishment!

What is so cool about this young pilot winning is that it shows that while he obviously has natural talent, he’s pursued his curiosity enough to practice enough to be able to compete in international events with real money behind them. The support of his mother most notably is an excellent case study in how to foster a young person’s curiosity and enable them to take their passion as far as they are motivated to go. It’s not unlike the stories we see of athlete’s parents that are behind their kids. Most high profile athletes for example, Tiger Woods and the Williams’ Sisters, wouldn’t be where they are today without their parents.

Banni’s win also speaks to the overall inclusiveness of the drone racing sport and community surrounding it. It’s open, it’s the Wild West and it’s all about the passion for the idea of drone racing regardless of things like age and geographic location.

It’s an exciting time to see kids and adults alike getting out from behind their computer monitors, getting outdoors and working together in social situations.

HOLLY KASUN, COO AND CO-FOUNDER, FLYBRIX

 

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