Grove City College freshman Amanda Lipski will be competing in World Drone Racing Championship this week in South Korea as part of F9U Drone Racing Team USA.
Lipski, an Electrical Engineering major from State College, Pa., is ranked second in the world among women drone racers. She has been piloting and racing drones for about five years and earned her spot on Team USA earlier this year at the MultiGP International Open in Muncie, Ind.
Drone racing is a fast-growing air sport that tests a pilot’s ability to beat other competitors by racing around a specially built course, often flying through gates and around obstacles to reach the finish line in the fastest time, according to the Team USA website.
Lipski is one of just 12 women competing in the 2023 Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Drone Racing Championship from Oct. 6 to 9 at Chunhyangol Stadium in Namwon, South Korea.
Lipski said she first became interested in drone racing when she saw it on TV while channel surfing. “I thought it was the coolest thing ever,” she said. About a year later she decided she wanted to take up the sport and started with a simulator before moving onto custom-built drones and entering competitions.
“Just being able to fly is incredible,” she said. Kitted out in first person view (FPV) goggles connected to the drone’s camera, she said it feels like she is the drone.
Lipski enjoys the technical aspects of the sport. “I have to build my own drones. You spec out your build, what you're looking for in terms of racing, and then you get all the parts and you put them together yourself. It involves soldering and software configuration and it's very fun actually,” she said. “And if something goes wrong – if I crash it – I have to repair it. I have to troubleshoot it. I have learned so much just trying to figure out why it won't turn on or whatever.”
Like “Top Gun” pilots, drone racers are known in their communities by their nicknames. Lipski’s is PiFly, a moniker that owes its origin to a childhood challenge from her father to memorize the first 50 digits of pi. Beginning in grade school, Lipski started by memorizing 50, then 100, then 200, and eventually 500 digits of pi.
“For many years pi had been a part of my identity and I wanted to bring that into my pilot name. For all intents and purposes in a drone race I am PiFly. Like half the people I've known for years and years, I don't know most of their real names. They probably don't know my real name,” she said.
Drone racing isn’t initially an expensive hobby but sustaining a career as an international competitor is, Lipski said. Repairing and replacing parts is costly, as are the batteries that power the drones for just a few minutes in a race. Besides bragging rights, trophies, and challenge coins that are coveted by the racers, there are monetary prizes and potential sponsorships at stake in the international championship, but Lipski has another goal in mind.
“I would like to eventually become an engineer that is designing the newest generation of drone parts. I think that would be really really cool. I love competing and flying, but realistically I won't have the time to be competitive much longer,” Lipski said.
The World Drone Racing Championship will be broadcast live online at the FAI Air Sports Channel at youtube.com/@airsports_fai. Videos of Lipsky’s drone flights and more are available at youtube.com/@PiFLY.