From the start, the objective of the DCL’s drone regulations has been to advance fairness and innovation. Fabian Wachter, the Race Director of the Drone Champions League, explains, “The goal was to have something similar to major motorsports, where the regulations are tight but every team has the possibility to be better than the others through engineering. We wanted to regulate things like the weight, dimensions, power and motors; but otherwise let the teams do whatever they could to engineer the best setup.”
In the first year of DCL competition, the regulations specified 5-inch drones, with 32 LEDs, and four-cell Li-Po (Lithium Polymer) batteries for power. There was no restriction on motor size, and the frames were custom made, typically by the pilots. Because every team used a different frame, every drone body was unique, often using many 3D-printed parts just to cobble everything together.
“The drones looked totally different than they do now: every team, and most pilots, used different frames and different hardware. There has been a huge change from season to season since then,” Fabian states. “Today, each team needs 30 to 40 drones, and their drones are all the same.”
In DCL’s second season, specifications for the drone lighting expanded to 40 LEDs. It turned out to be the last season that common LEDs would be used in the series.
“In the first two seasons, we had normal LEDs: the small little dots. But now we have special LEDs manufactured exclusively for DCL,” Fabian describes. “The goal is to enable spectators to see the drones much better. They are brighter, and it’s easier to make out the color. You can recognize a DCL drone right away when you see these huge LED stripes.”
One thing 2017 proved was that the drones had no problem taking on wind and weather – during a rainy weekend in Brussels the teams wrapped their drones in plastic and just kept on flying! “The worst thing that can happen is fog, because the pilots can’t see the gates, but wind and rain are not a problem. The racing drones are so powerful – these days, a DCL drone has around 5 kg of thrust, but weighs just 800 grams. It’s totally crazy!” Fabian says.
Not only were special chip-on-board LEDs introduced in 2018, but the drone size jumped up to 6 inches, with a minimum diagonal of 325mm, motor to motor.
The battery power remained unchanged, however, as did the unrestricted motor size, and as teams tried to push to intense new levels, problems popped up. In the quest for dominance they were using motors that were much too powerful. Batteries were running dry, and motors were trashed.
Fabian recalls, “Definitely it was a learning year for the teams. They were the same batteries they had been using since the beginning, and they finally found the boundaries.”
The most momentous changes to the DCL Racing Drones have been implemented just this year. The frame is even bigger: 7 inches, with the minimum diagonal increased to 360mm. Most visually arresting is the new sleek, streamlined canopy that serves as a uniform chassis for all the drones. “The canopy is important for aerodynamics, and it gives the drones a cleaner look. This in turn changed electronics a lot, because you have to build with everything in a specific place or you won’t be able to fit all the parts under the canopy,” says Fabian. “It’s also a huge opportunity, because teams have the whole chassis space to sell to sponsor brands.”
In 2019, the special LEDs can be any size that fits the frame; and for the first time since the series started, the battery requirement has changed, simply specifying a single battery with a maximum of 1.8 kw. Fabian elaborates, “It’s to give the teams more flexibility, since most of the tracks of the DCL season are different, from high-speed to technical. Many teams had expressed a desire to choose their own batteries, and we always welcome team input in developing our ruleset.”
Also for the first time, a limit has been put on motor size: in technical terms, a maximum of 2207. “We established this so all the drones have roughly the same power, putting the emphasis on pilot skill,” Fabian shares. “This year we have better heats. The drones are much closer.”
Further, DCL has always been a leader in developing FPV (First Person View) and VTX (video transmitter) technologies that bring images to fans as well as pilots, and in 2019 DCL introduced its own HD recording system – small, light and with a combination camera for HD and analogue signals.
The teams’ engineering capabilities are advancing, too. Before 2019, almost all pilots built their own drones, but now the most professional teams have engineers who build the drones and try to push them to the limit. One of the hot team trends: developing new 3D printed parts throughout the season to improve aerodynamics, while also increasingly using carbon fiber parts for their durability.
To avoid disruption, DCL makes major rule revisions only once each year. But the planning begins long before the season is out. “Technology is always changes, and our racing league always tries to be state of the art,” Fabian asserts. While he doesn’t anticipate any enormous shakeups to drone requirements for 2020, he does foresee longer-term progression, including eventual advancements that will make FPV systems optimal in all conditions.
He concludes, “Another thing will be getting more data from the drones: real-time speed, real-time G force, real-time positioning, things like this. In that regard, I think everything you have in a major motorsport is on the horizon for our future.”