Lightning-fast manoeuvres, smashing rotor blades, parts flying everywhere and balls of fire. If you'd watched the introduction clip, you'd certainly expect a spectacle during the first edition of DroneClash last Tuesday. Six drone teams were competing in a hangar near Katwijk, with virtually no holds barred. And spectacular it certainly was, though with a serious undertone by the organisers. They hope that the event will promote the development of systems for control of drones.
By: Roel van der Heijden
It's breezy in Hangaar2 of the former Valkenburg military airfield in Katwijk. Not that anybody has left the door open, but rather it's the racing drones circling noisily at high speed around the flag, in the centre of the hangar. This is one of the few events of this afternoon's DroneClash where speed truly plays a role.
Further up, today's true battle of the very first DroneClash is set to take place in a closed arena comprising two zones, connected via a long tunnel. The scene has been set with smoke, dramatic lighting and music. The décor is a little reminiscent of the Robot Wars TV programme in which robots attack each other using angle grinders and hammers.
Today's battle is not on the ground, but in the air. On the starter's signal, groups of approximately five drones try to take each other down. Their special target is the 'queen drone' which each team must try to keep airborne as long as possible during each duel.
They have more or less free rein in the heats which sometimes take less than a minute before the drones are lying around in pieces on the ground. A flame throwing robot built by the Delft FBC2T team has set part of the course on fire, while a drone from another Delft team, Decepti Drone, entangles the opponent's rotors using a projectile with wires. There are confetti cannons and the battle of the skies is conducted by frustrating drone communication in the ether. Yet when push comes to shove, knocking the opponent out of the air is still the favourite strategy.
Laptops and cola bottles
One corner of the hangar is the spot where teams can prepare for the event. It's a jumble of laptops, electronics and cola bottles. The difference between the teams is striking. While some drones are fully ready and need no further work, others still need soldering, taping and last-minute tweaking.
This début version of DroneClash is first and foremost all about the fun. The few hundred spectators are thoroughly enjoying the matches and the drone demos. The event is proof that, having enjoyed explosive growth over the past 10 years, the drone industry is now ready to grow up. There are numerous stands manned by companies whose business is anti-drone systems. They aim to meet the demand by authorities for the effective control of increasing drone use.
Representing the Micro Air Vehicle Laboratory of Delft University of Technology, Kevin van Hecke is one of the organisers of DroneClash, and believes that this development is important for the acceptance of drones. 'Drones are everywhere nowadays and can be used for all kinds of cool things, but they can also be a problem. People fly them above crime scenes and accidentally leak sensitive information. Or they prevent a trauma helicopter from landing,' he explains. 'The law' has therefore become very stringent in terms of drone use, which in turn is tricky for professional users. Enforcers need tools in order to control the drone situation. When a drone is flying illegally over a crowd of people, you can often only observe and hope that you can find the pilot.'
The police force is represented by Mark Wiebes today, who's the innovation manager of the National Unit. Wiebes refers to an increase in the number of drone 'incidents' in recent years (around 140 in 2017). The police force is therefore looking for possibilities for enforcement. Two years ago, they attracted a great deal of attention by being the first in the world to train a bird of prey to catch drones. Unfortunately, this did not have the required effect, and they are now broadening their horizons.
There are plenty of systems for them to choose from at DroneClash. Companies are presenting devices to track drone operators, to jam or hack drones (as yet illegal in the Netherlands) and one company is demonstrating its DroneCatcher. A powerhouse of a drone weighing more than four kilos, it catches other drones by netting them and carefully parachuting them to the ground.
There's not a net or a parachute in sight during today's matches. The battles are much more fierce. Whereas a number of heats are somewhat clumsy and over all too quickly, the final between the Twente team Laced Horns and the German team Dipol turns out to be a titanic dogfight between various attacking drones. The spectators have got what they came for. Whether by wisdom or luck, the Dutch team gains the upper hand and heads for home with the 30,000 euro main prize.
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