Chris Ballard is the founder of Freedom Drone Sports, an Australian company which has developed the Giant racing drone. He was also once the Asia Pacific Director of MultiGP.
We spoke to Chris about its development and what he envisions for the future of the sport.
Third Law Sports: You launched at the Science Festival in Brisbane in March, but how long have you been involved in drones yourself and what was the development stage?
Chris: Absolutely right, back in March of this year we effectively went public. We’d been developing it for six months prior to that but that was the first type we appeared in public with our prototype. That prototype was our fifth design but the first which made it off the drawing board.
I’ve been mucking around in drones since 2012, and I held my first race in late 2013. I’m more of an organizer than I am a pilot, and I quickly noticed a few issues. There was a real barrier in the early days around where to find good, reliable information. A lot of people were having difficulty getting into the sport because of this. This led me to creating the Drone Racing Beginners group on Facebook to facilitate people learning about the sport and how to get involved themselves.
This remains the largest group on Facebook for drone beginners so I’m pleased it’s had some success!
Off the back of this we led the first state level series in Australia back in 2014 and we’ve held a lot of races since. One of the primary issues I found with trying to get sponsors on board was that drones are just too small.
It’s not a spectator sport without a set of video goggles which led us to deciding upon opting for larger alternatives.
The development stage got us thinking about names and how big we could realistically make these drones. At the time we were looking at 12 inch propellers on a frame which was around 1m in size. We were up late one night and chatting about ideas, and I put it that why not go larger still, that is to the 1.5m mark.
Discussing designs the next day it turned out my team thought I hadn’t been serious but we pushed on with the 1.5 metre and it got us to where we are today!
People such as Shaun Sato-Veillon from Japan and Andy Shen from the States chipped in with designs, and we ended up going with a local Aussie from Brisbane who makes Banshee frames, Ward Paterson. That was based on being able to purchase carbon fibre flatsheets and round tubes, his background was actually in roll cages for V8 supercars!
Third Law Sports: How can drone racing continue along its current trajectory path?
Chris: For it to really grow and take off with the public it needs to professionalise.
Whilst it’s great that there are a lot of local scenes organising races, and a superb grassroots scene which is vital for the foundation it needs more than this if it’s to take off on a large scale.
You need consistent people in a proper international series, much like the Formula 1 where fans have their favourite driver and at the very least know the names and teams competing regularly.
The sport so far has quite quickly moved from grassroots races, which moved onto organising large events, and from there there was something of a gap in which people tried to create associations and alliances between the various groups around the world. The next step was an attempt to create authorities to try to establish a set of regulated and globally accepted rules. It’s this step which is ongoing today.
Third Law Sports: What have you got planned for the rest of 2016?
Chris: We did have plans for a world tour but we’ve had to re-evaluate. I’ve brought on a lot of non-endemic people on the business side; that is people from the civil aviation sector and safety sectors, and we’ve revamped the way we’re going about promoting the Freedom Class.
We’ve been working with ICAO, the International Civil Aviation Organisation, they’re helping us with the human safety factors. We’re also dealing with the national government here and generally ensuring the safety factors and regulations are in place and of a standard required by a high end organisation such as Formula 1. This has the long term goal of ensuring that we can be accepted by the various authorities country to country when we go global.
After all, we’re dealing with large aircraft. That brings me onto the product roadmap. We currently have V1 which is 1.5 metres and has 9.6 kilowatt motors. The V2, which will be out in the coming months, will have the same size frame but we’re upgrading the power; we’re going from 9.6 kilowatt motors to 18 kilowatts. The V3 will boast a new frame, it’ll be much more aerodynamic and the aim is to have this out by the end of the year.
We’ll be hosting a showcase along the pier in the middle of Brisbane in late 2016 or early 2017 which should be something of a crowd pleaser!
Third Law Sports: What’s the local drone racing scene like in Australia?
Chris: It’s an interesting space but it’s a little conflicted at this stage. To give you an example in the coming two months we have two separate Nationals. One is related to the Hawaii Worlds coming up in October, whilst the other is sponsored by a state fair and offers a $25,000 prize. Overall there are a number of great opportunities for pilots.
Earlier in the year another organisation held yet another unrelated national championship. In Australia there’s a long way for it go to be a singular league and whether it will go in that path, or even whether that’s best, is hard to say at this stage.
What’s important right now is that there is plenty of choice; in each major city there’s at least two to three clubs for people to get involved with should they choose.