Drone Advice is pleased to bring you an in-depth interview with World Champion Drone Racer, Thomas Bitmatta. Thomas speaks candidly about his journey into the world of drone racing and his involvement in this rapidly growing – not to mention seriously cool – sport. Thomas rounds out the interview by providing some useful tips for aspiring and established drone racers.
DroneAdvice: What led you into drone racing and what type of drones do you fly?
Thomas: My drone racing journey began with finding out about First Person View (FPV) Drones through one of my Dad’s work friends in 2011. He met someone at an Australia Day RC slope-soaring meet who was flying a tri-copter with FPV gear. Our friend started working on making his own FPV tri-copters and it wasn’t until after we had seen it in action that we decided to get into FPV. For us, initially it was all about long range FPV planes, doing 2-12 kilometre flights in formation and around cool scenery! For me, this was a dream come true. From an early age, I was always into aviation and especially fast jets like F16s and MiG29s. Now, all of a sudden I could have a taste of going on a journey and experiencing that freedom of flight.
In 2012 I flew my first quad-copter, not FPV but a little Ladybird v939. At this point, I had no interest in FPV quadcopters but I loved flying the little v939 around my house.
2014 and beyond
By 2014, multi-rotors were gaining more popularity and in January the first Melbourne Multi-rotor meet was held. I expected to go there and make a cool video on how tech in the FPV world was evolving. What I didn’t expect was how inspired I would be. Here is where I met Stunt Double FPV, who was undoubtedly the fastest in Australia (possibly even the world’s fastest at the time). His flying was on a whole other level. All of a sudden, new windows of opportunity were opened.
Then came the Second Melbourne Multirotor Meet in March of 2014. All of a sudden, a new style of multirotor was born, the MiniQuad. We had heard some talk of them before but now we got to see this new tech in the flesh. 250mm size drones built with carbon fibre. At around this time, we were able to fly in a lot more areas and flight performance also substantially improved (when measured against the state-of-play 3 months earlier). This was also the first pre-organised drone race in Victoria. This would be what led me onto the drone racing path.
The idea of having something that can fly way beyond your mental limit (and in so many places) was exciting. Furthermore, self-refinement was easy, since feedback from your inputs were so instant and clear. Each time I would fly and race, my drive would be further fueled. In December of 2015, after 2 MMRC practice meets had been held, I made the decision to take drone racing more seriously and try and become the fastest in Victoria within 2 years.
This is my first flight of a quadcopter:
This is the first and second Melbourne Multirotor Meet:
DroneAdvice: One of the amazing things about the sport is the degree to which it has grown and evolved in recent years, both at the domestic and international level. What excites you about these scenes and the way the sport is progressing?
Thomas: There is so much that excites me about the drone racing scene as a whole. The community we have is so vibrant and supportive of each other and the technology is progressing at an extraordinary rate and shows no signs of slowing down. Now the racing scene is definitely evolving into a full-fledged professional sport with different disciplines of racing forming, different leagues and even international teams that often find themselves competing over multiple stages around the globe.
Companies outside of drone racing are getting involved in the sport which has only added to the growth and evolution. Even in the freestyle side of the FPV scene, racing drones are finding their footing in film shoots, as chase drones for cars and other high-intensity sports.
To me it’s mind-blowing that so many new opportunities are emerging every day and everything is growing… even the Australian Defence Force is getting involved in drone racing, forming their own race teams and hosting their own races. For me, as I said before, it’s like a dream come true, but every day it becomes more and more real. Things that existed purely in the dreamworld are now here, and things that we seem to dream about now have already shown signs of crossing the horizon into reality.
DroneAdvice: Some of the drone racing tracks that have been created are simply incredible – the one in Lake Zurich in Rapperswil Switzerland is one of many examples that springs to mind. What’s been your favourite track to race on?
Thomas: Picking a favourite track is hard for me, there are so many amazing tracks with such varied feeling and style. I guess when it comes down to it, tracks are like music, where they have their own rhythm, their own feeling and are all a unique journey to explore and understand. If I had to choose, I’d say my favourite is the track from the FAI Shenzhen World Cup. It was breathtaking to see it and even better flying it. It was unique in that it was a high-speed track compared to normal but it had a nice rhythm to it. I would love to fly it again!
Another track I loved was the AU Nationals 2018 Time Trial Track. I might be a little biased since I was the designer of that track, but I built it with the intent of having a distinct optimal race line and also with the idea of not favouring a particular drone setup. So even if you didn’t have an optimised setup for Eastside FPV-style racing, your drone would still have an advantage in a particular portion of track, just as any other race quad would have some kind of advantage over yours. It meant pilots had to think carefully about how they would approach the track to get the most out of what they had. It produced some awesome racing and very interesting conversations about how to achieve their best.
DroneAdvice: What was it like to be part of the first ever Military International Drone Racing Tournament (MIDRT) at Sydney’s Victoria Barracks earlier this year, an event we understand is linked to the Invictus Games?
Thomas: For me It was unbelievable. Like I said earlier, I was into aviation, including fast jets. Because of that, I gained an appreciation for the work militaries do globally. To have the honour to work with the Army, in the field of drone racing, is one of those dreams you hope comes true. Being able to spend time with people from various Militaries around the world that all have a common interest in drone racing is possibly one of the coolest things I’ve done. I would say it’s the equivalent of meeting your heroes, but at the same time, after only talking to them for a little bit, it feels like you’ve been friends for years.
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When going to an event like this, most expect to meet Military personnel who do drone racing, yet when you meet them it feels like they are drone racers that also happen to be military personnel. These people weren’t just running through the motions of a drone racer. They were passionate and striving to improve with every moment. Overall, the atmosphere was amazing and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for next years’ MIDRT, and I hope I’m fortunate enough to be involved!
DroneAdvice: As the current drone racing World Champion, what advice or tips do you have for people thinking about getting into the sport or for current drone racers that might want to shave a few seconds off their lap times?
Thomas: My biggest advice is to take baby steps and have fun! At the end of the day, no matter how serious or competitive, we do this all for fun, so enjoy yourself! It’s easy to get caught up in the competition and lose sight of where you are and what your doing, especially with how volatile racing can be, but as long as you don’t lose sight of why you race, why you fly and push yourself to the limit, this sport will reward you greatly.
Back on the point about taking baby steps: many try to get into the racing and go ‘full tilt’. I guess it goes back to the phrase of walk before you run. Basically don’t be afraid to take tiny steps forwards when learning to fly and when trying to improve your racing. You’ll get much more flight time and improve much more quickly. There is nothing wrong with crashing but laying down a good foundation before building up your skill set will yield to better development of your flying.
For people looking into FPV, there are many Facebook groups and Youtube channels dedicated to educating people on what tech is available and when races are happening. Going to a local race meet can be really helpful as you can see it in person and work out what you want to do. As far as picking electronics, I find the best way is to either buy a ready-to-fly quad or to look online and find someone else’s gear setup and imitate it – that way you know that with what you have you can do what you see in their videos!
Thanks for reading!
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Feature photo courtesy of Thomas Bitmatta.