Drone-racing passion propels teen to the sport’s top ranks

Fred Bowen

THE WASHINGTON POST – There aren’t many activities in which a kid can operate a machine at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour. But Jake Capobres, who lives in the United States (US), has found one.

The 14-year-old from Plymouth, Michigan, is one of the top drone racers in the world, and one of the youngest.

A drone is an unmanned aerial vehicle. It has three main parts: the flying machine, a controller on the ground and a communications system between the two.

In competitions, the racers or pilots wear special goggles that allow them to see what the drone “sees” as it flies over, under and around obstacles on a racecourse. Racers control the position and speed of the drone with two joysticks.

Jake will test his skills this week in Florida at the MultiGP Drone Racing Championship. Based on his best time at qualifying races this year, he’s ranked fourth worldwide.

The teen’s rise in drone-racing ranks has been speedy, but his interest in drones developed gradually. Jake, who spent some of his early years in Washington, DC, attending Lafayette Elementary School, was a kid who played baseball and “was always interested in airplanes”.

Jake Capobres earned a trophy for the fastest time at the MultiGP 2020 Global Qualifier event in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
Pilots from around the world work on their drones at the 2019 MultiGP International Open in Muncie

His parents bought him inexpensive remote control airplane kits as holiday “stocking stuffers”.

As Jake said, “I like to mess around with stuff.” Soon he was taking apart the machines and putting them back together.

Now the high school freshman doesn’t just fly his drones, he builds them.

When he started racing drones near Detroit a couple of years ago, Jake was hardly a star.

“In the beginning, I was crashing all the time.” Now when he is racing, “I want to keep a good pace but be in control so I don’t crash.”

That pace, of course, is super fast. Pilots race around a course alone to qualify for races in which they race against as many as seven drones.

Jake moved up the rankings just like he races: fast. When I asked him how he got better so quickly, Jake said, “practise”.

Jake practices three or four times a week at a nearby flying club or at a track he set up at his cousin’s house. The sessions are usually four to six hours.

Jake said he’s never bored during the long practices. “You are always trying to figure out something at the track,” he said. You’re trying to get the drone to go faster or “trying to find the tightest line” as the drone zips around the track.

The practising paid off in the races, which Jake describes as “exhilarating” because “you can see the objects (on the course) go by faster and faster”.

When I asked Jake what he wants to do when he gets older, he said, “I am interested in being an aeronautical engineer.”

My guess is he won’t let any obstacles get in his way.