Bruno Senna On His New Role As Airspeeder ‘Flying Car’ Racing Pilot

Former Formula One and endurance racing driver Bruno Senna has swapped cars for drones, joining racing startup Airspeeder as a development pilot.

Airspeeder plans to create a ‘flying-car’ racing series using high-performance drones. These vehicles will initially be unmanned, but the eventual goal is to see pilots strap themselves into the drones and compete against each other in a first-of-its-kind global championship.

Bruno Senna, who is the nephew of three-time Formula One world champion Ayrton Senna, comes to Airspeeder after a successful career spanning F1, Formula E and the World Endurance Series, finishing second at the 24 hours of Le Mans in 2020.

“I’m a full-on geek and nerd so it’s a good coming-together for me,” says Senna. “I love flying FPV [first-person view] drone. I’ve been doing it since 2014 and this is bringing together two big passions of mine.”

As development pilot, Senna joins a team of engineers and designers with whose CVs include successes at the Ferrari Formula One team and the McLaren supercar company, as well as project leaders from Airbus, Boeing and airplane engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce.

The initial plan is for Airspeeder drones to be flown from a first-person view. This is where the pilot wears a headset showing them a live video feed from a camera mounted to the front of the vehicle. Later, the company hopes for the so-called flying cars to be manned. Safety will be key, and Senna says the drones will use a motorsport-style monocoque chassis to keep pilots protected in an accident.

Senna added: “One of the many things being developed is obstacle avoidance, so when you’re flying close to another craft you can’t collide with them…they are intelligent enough to sense each other.”

Development is ongoing, but Senna says the aircraft are currently capable of around 190km/h (118mph) and are generating between four and five G of acceleration, which Senna says “is quite extreme, and trust me I know from single-seater racing. ”

For now, flight time is around 10 minutes when flown aggressively, or up to 20 minutes when flown more slowly. Interestingly, Airspeeder wants to include pit stops and strategy as part of its racing. This will give teams the option to run with a lighter battery, thus making the drone faster but with a shorter range and the need to pit more often. Pit stops will see batteries quickly swapped out and replaced by a team of mechanics. “There’s a lot of strategy that can be applied,” Senna says.

Airspeeder plans for the race circuits to make use of augmented reality. As such, there won’t be a physical circuit for the racers to navigate, at least initially. Instead, corners and barriers will be added digitally to the pilot’s view; they will also be visible to those watching on live broadcasts, and to spectators who attend in-person and also wear augmented reality headsets.

Senna explained: “The plan is to bring people into this mixed reality thing. So everyone who is there watching will have the goggles on, and as a spectator you can see the track digitally laid out there in front of you. I’ve seen some stuff now and they’re making it look so real. It’s quite impressive.”

Exactly how the racing will work, and what rules there will be, isn’t yet decided. When asked if the digitized element could enable video game-style short cuts and speed boosts, Senna said: “Perhaps we’ll have short cuts that you can take once in the race strategically, when stuck behind another craft. There’s so much to develop on the format that it’s quite hard to predict where we’re going to end up.”

Senna’s understanding of racing car and drone dynamics will play a key role in the development of the Airspeeder championship and its Speeder vehicles. He said how they can follow each other closely without losing much performance, unlike recent Formula One cars, adding: “It doesn’t rely so much on aerodynamic effects. There is a turbulence effect that will degrade the performance of the craft behind, but if you make the track wide enough you can take different lines. It’s interesting because the craft is light but there’s still some good mass to it, which means racing lines and attack angles will make a massive difference to your performance.”

Expanding on vehicle dynamics, Senna added: “It’s so easy to come flying into the corner and just take it as fast as you like. With cars you brake before the corner, but with these you sort of carve your way in. But if you don’t understand the dynamics of the craft well enough you lose time, because on the exit it takes a while to accelerate.”

Pilots will initially be flying the vehicles remotely, which Senna says makes it hard to feel exactly what the Speeder is doing. “But when you’re inside of it I’m sure the neck and whole body will have a big pounding because every corner is going to be really, really tough.”

Airspeed is yet to say where or when its first race will take place, but an announcement to reveal the location and date of the inaugural event is due imminently.

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