Bruno Senna: from F1 to air racing — 'it's quite daunting'

Drone Racing

Aispeeder has announced the former Williams and Lotus F1 driver Bruno Senna as its development pilot, ahead of its first air races this year.

Bruno Senna portrait Airspeeder

Having achieved plenty on the racetrack, Senna is now taking his racing to the skies

Airspeeder

There can’t be much that compares to the adrenalin rush of a grand prix, but hurtling above the ground at over 100mph, in a wing-to-wing race has to be a close substitute.

That’s the challenge that Bruno Senna is about to take on, as he trades the steering wheel for the joystick as a ‘flying racing car’ pilot for the groundbreaking new Airspeeder championship.

A veteran of 46 F1 races, plus two Formula E seasons and six Le Mans 24 Hour races, Senna has been announced as the development pilot for the fledgling series and will also be competing in the first races later this year.

“I saw Ayrton flying planes and he was extremely skilled” Bruno Senna

Senna will initially control the air racer from the ground while wearing virtual reality goggles showing a view from the drone and an ‘augmented reality’ race suit which simulates the sensation of flying. If all goes to plan, the pilots will be racing in the cockpit in a full championship next year. “It’s quite daunting, but also refreshing,” he told Motor Sport. “There’s no limit to it.”

After emulating his legendary uncle by following him into Formula 1, Bruno has now taken up another of Ayrton’s passions: Some of his earliest memories come from watching the three-time F1 champion flying radio controlled planes in their home country.

“I saw him flying planes and he was extremely skilled,” Bruno says. “He would fly them at our family’s farm in Brazil, do some really cool acrobatics, a bit of a daring flying style, and it was something that I always enjoyed.

“I never got the chance to fly these planes and now they’re in a little museum back in Brazil, and certainly I carried the passion for remote control. I think if I ever get an Airspeeder for myself, I don’t think it’s gonna be in the museum – I’ll be flying it! Eventually, it might make it to the museum!”

The rise of electric power looks set to bring a new era of flying racers, with the rival Air Race E series aiming to get off the ground this year as well with conventional-looking planes.

Airspeeder’s craft is a vertical take-odd and landing ‘ocotcoper’, with dual rotors on four corners. During this year’s three planned races, it will be essentially be a large, fearsome remote control drone, racing against nine other competitors. at heights of 60 metres (196 feet).

Produced by Alauda, the craft’s motors produce 400kW of power – equivalent to 540bhp, with pitstops required. The top speed is unknown at the moment. Airspeeder sometimes says 175km/h (100mph) and at other times 300km/h (185mph). It is said to accelerate from 0-100km/h in 2.3sec. Pitstops will be required and it should take around 20sec to slide out the battery pack and replace it with a fresh module.

For Senna, a self-confessed technology fanatic, the opportunity of becoming an Airspeeder pilot was too good to turn down.

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“I was introduced to Steve Sidlo, Airspeeder head of media. We went for lunch to talk about it and I was like ‘Wow – what a super great opportunity!'” Senna says. “He didn’t need it to sell me – I already followed the company. Steven introduced me to their team and it went pretty quickly from there on. It’s really exciting.”

Senna had been developing his own interest in drones for some time before, and so is fully aware of all the thrills but also teething troubles of flying such aircraft.

“I’ve flown drones First Person View (FPV) drones since 2014, so it’s it’s a great passion of mine” he explains. “I obviously love racing too, so Airspeeder is the amalgamation of both.

“In the beginning, I was on YouTube and saw this video of some people flying FPV drones in a forest, with these LEDs on the back of the drones. They were pretty slow and they were pretty terrible to fly – but it looked just like Star Wars. I was like: ‘Oh my god I need to do this.'”

Senna soon set to work creating his very own drone, before realising it wasn’t that easy.

“I started researching and building my own drones and trust me, it was quite hard to find carbon fibre frames to make the from that were actually strong, so every crash was was a big rebuild,” he says.

“In the beginning, there was also no way around a crash when you were flying in proximity [to other aircraft]. Nowadays, these things flying incredibly well and you have simulators to learn all the skills before you actually fly the real thing. It’s a very, very fun thing when you have the FPV goggles on. It does feel like you’re on board, so you get massive adrenaline from flying mountains or flying in the forest. It’s a real thrill.”

Airspeeder in flight

The ‘octocopter’ is propelled by eight rotating blades, powered by a 400kW battery

Airspeeder

Airspeeder has had its shares of ups and downs as it has developed the technology, including a high-profile crash during a demonstration at Goodwood in 2019. An Air Accident Investigation Branch report was highly critical of the design and safety of the prototype craft.

Since then, the craft has been redesigned and the current Mk3 Speeder is seen as ready to race.

Locations as far flung as the Mojave Desert and Coober Pedy desert in Australia have been mentioned but not confirmed. We don’t yet know the length and format of races, but the virtual reality goggles will allow extra obstacles to be added digitally.

Airspeeder Head of Communications James Warren explains how the flying racing circuits will work. “It’s all delivered through augmented reality,” he says. “That means tracks can change we can do different layouts. You have absolute freedom, because we’re not having to build that concrete and physical racing infrastructure.

“We can take racing to places it’s never been before. We can move onto ice, ocean areas, incredible desert landscapes. Visually it’s going to be hugely exciting, and it’s going to present all sorts of different dynamic challenges for Bruno and his pilot colleagues.

“There’s a really important note on that about sustainability too – it’s baked into the sport, because we go into an interesting place and leave no trace whatsoever.”

“You can be so creative, and it can be so thrilling,” adds Senna. “I don’t see the limitations.”

Airspeeders in flight

The Airspeeder will comprise of ten aircraft

Airspeeder

Virtually enhanced courses aren’t the only thing aspect that will be stimulation by simulation. Each pilot will wear a ‘Teslasuit’, immersing the pilot in a fully ‘augmented reality’. Senna explains how it works.

“The suits give you the physical sensations of being inside the craft with VR goggles,” Senna explains. “It’s like a wet suit, very tight fitting and has hundreds of galvanic sensors and pads which sense your sweat, your tension and all this stuff.

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“Muscle signals are sent via electrical stimulation, like that you use for physio treatment, to make your body react as if you’re flying. It’s a very interesting concept because the feeling of the G force that they give you is your own muscles fighting the other muscle group to make the movement.”

For those observing rather than racing, spectators on site will get to sit in virtual cockpits with VR goggles and experience the action similar to the pilots.

Warren highlights that for those viewing at home “it will be obviously the work of the broadcasters to to take the mix of these experiences that the people are having with the goggles and and what’s happening real life and present it to the viewers.

“It’s a sport that’s that’s been conceived in the generation of streaming right and how particularly that younger generation – native to Twitch and esports – wants to go and consume the media.”

As well as being development tester and a race pilot, Senna is also a brand ambassador for the sport, helping it to evolve and bringing it to a wider audience.

“Honestly, it’s, it’s quite refreshing,” he says of of his new role and racing discipline. “In a way it’s very daunting, because obviously it’s my input that will probably will have an effect on the on the outcome of this. I hope that it goes the right way and people are happy with it. I think if people get the opportunity to experience it like we do, a lot of people will be hooked.”