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The future of drones has always excited us here at MakeUseOf, but in 2014 when we were writing about the idea of drone combat as a sport, we didn’t expect something like that to become reality so quickly. Indeed, first-person-view (FPV) drone racing is now a thing, and it’s awesome.
But much like big-wave surfing or bouldering, it’s unlikely that drone racing will ever be mainstream. There’s an ongoing debate whether drone racing should be classified as an extreme sport (x-sport) or an electronic sport (e-sport), but the real challenge will be getting it up to spectator sport status.
The good news is that there are already prize pots ranging from several hundred dollars all the way up to a full million dollars, so it seems like there’s a lot of financial backing for this latent sport — mostly from young-to-middle-aged men who want to take part in what resembles real-life Star Wars podracing.
Racing an iPad-sized quadcopter at speeds up to 100 mph through assault courses, forests, and underground parking lots sounds like a dream, but add in first-person-view headsets that place each racer virtually inside the drone cockpits and it’s easy to see how exciting and surreal this sport truly is.
Interested? Want to learn more? Want to get started? Want to experience the thrills and adrenaline for yourself? Here’s everything you need to know.
What to Know: The Drones
Within the sport itself, drones are referred to as quadcopters (each has four propellers, or props). Compared to standard consumer drones — such as the DJI Phantom, which can weigh up to about three pounds — these smaller mini-quadcopters only weigh in at around one pound.
But even though they’re smaller, they’re built from stronger components. Despite their lightweight frames, they’re incredibly tough and rugged, which protects the main electronics from any scuffs and bumps when the quadcopter collides and wipes out.
The hand-held controller dictates the altitude, speed, and direction of the drone. The FPV goggles stream a real-time view of the drone’s flight path via an onboard camera:
Pilots who compete in serious races will likely know their drones inside and out. Literally. Pilots spend a lot of time fine-tuning their drones, programming their flight-controllers, and tweaking their speed-controllers to make sure everything feels comfortable and right while maximizing performance.
Don’t want to get involved in the engineering side of the sport? No problem. A lot of people don’t, and you can still participate. We’ll show you how later in this article.
What to Know: The Races
Drone racing is still very much in its infancy. There is no official governing body (like FIFA for soccer) and there aren’t even any official rules yet. If you go to any two races, you’ll find that they’re organized differently, raced differently, and judged differently. However, there are three main race-types to know about.
The first is time trials. This is where one pilot at a time flies his drone through a racecourse. The pilot who achieves the fastest time wins. Think of it as similar to Olympic downhill skiing rather than an Olympic dash around a track, which brings us to…
The second is rotorcross. This is where up to four drones battle it out to see which one can first cross the finish line. (Any more than four drones will cause video interference.) Naturally, this type of race is far more likely to result in high-speed, mid-air collisions, which crowds tend to love.
The third is a simple drag race. This is where drones pit their acceleration against each other to see who can cover a given straight-line distance in the fastest time possible. The typical distance is 100 meters, but it doesn’t have to be.
There are other types of competitions, such as freestyling, which is judged in a way that’s similar to gymnastics or skateboarding: points are awarded for the successful completion of complex stunts. It’s not technically a race, but you should be aware of it nonetheless.
What to Know: The Leagues
Most drone races are coordinated by independently organized leagues. This is very much like how professional gaming competitions have been organized for years.
Each league draws up their own set of rules, determines how races are judged, decides which equipment is mandatory and which is forbidden, etc. As such, some leagues may be more appealing to you than others depending on how they’ve structured their events. Here are a few to check out:
- The Drone Racing League
- Aerial Grand Prix
- Aerial Sports League
- Racing FPV
- Mini Quad Club
Leagues can be local, national, and one day maybe even international. They can be for fun (no prize pots), for kicks and giggles (small prize pots), or for top-notch professionals (huge prize pots). The Drone Racing League, for example, sees some of the world’s top drone pilots racing in exotic locations for a huge prize.
What to Know: The Future
I said it before and I’ll say it again: drone racing is unlikely to be a mainstream sport. By that, I mean on the same level as baseball, soccer, basketball, etc. with millions of fans across the world and global recognition.
But that’s not really saying much. E-sports aren’t mainstream, but by 2017, we’ll see up to $465 million in revenue and close to 145 million regular viewers. Other non-mainstream sports, such as motocross and Redbull’s Air Races, sell enough tickets to fill entire stadiums.
Drone racing has a lot in common with these non-mainstream but still-quite-popular sports. It’s certainly exciting and competitive. It demands attention, it’s full of thrills, and it makes spectators want to try it out for themselves. Most importantly, it has proven able to generate real revenue.
What’s cool about drone racing is the idea of spectators being able to wear FPV goggles to see into drone cockpits, and that could be a real draw. This is a development that could potentially expand to other sports, but it meshes too perfectly with drone technology and could be the sport’s unique selling point.
Whichever way you look at it, drone racing seems like it’s going to be more than just a phase or fad. It’s rapidly attracting funding and sponsorships while capturing the imagination of a growing number of die-hard fans. And if a sport has passionate players and passionate fans, there’s no way it’ll fizzle out.
What to Know: Getting Started
If you’re itching to try your hand at drone racing, but don’t want to put hundreds of dollars on the table just yet, there are a couple of options to see if you’ve got what it takes. Lift-Off looks especially fun and only costs $20 on Steam. Otherwise, try Drone Racing League’s FPV Simulator, which is free on Windows and Mac.
When getting into real drone racing, any computer gaming experience you’ve amassed will definitely help in using the controllers that pilot these zippy machines. But even the most avid gamer should still start with an entry-level ready-to-fly (RTF) drone, such as the Hubsan X4.
A beginner drone allows you to get used to maneuvering the vehicle at slower speeds and will ease you into the strange feeling of flying a drone with FPV goggles. Plus, when you crash — and you will crash — the hit to your wallet won’t be so painful. In terms of costs:
- Entry-level racing drones range from $200 to $900.
- A pair of decent FPV goggles range from $300 to 400.
- You’ll also need spare parts (especially props), batteries, chargers, and soldering irons for making repairs and modifications.
Once you’re accustomed to your starter drone, you’ll want to upgrade. If you don’t have much electrical or engineering experience, it’s best to stick to RTF drones. Fortunately, not all RTF drones are beginner drones, so all you have to do is choose one that’s more challenging.
If you want to get more hands-on with your drone, an almost-ready-to-fly (ARF) drone is what you should buy next. When your shipment arrives, you’ll get to put all of the major parts of the drone together yourself, so you can feel like you’ve pretty much built your racing machine with your own hands.
If you’re proficient in mechanics and electronics, you may even want to buy components on your own and build your own custom drone. This is what most successful drone racers do to ensure that they have machines that perform as best as they can.
When it comes to finding others to fly with and race against, search Google for drone racing teams in your area, or search for teams and events on either FPVRacing or Meetup. If your searches don’t result in anything, you could always start your own team and create your own racing courses.
But if you do, be sure to check safety guidelines for your area because drones can be dangerous and cause serious injuries!
Is drone racing something you could see yourself getting involved with? And if so, how? Would you race, or would you spectate?
Image Credit: Quadrocopter racing by Julia Tim via Shutterstock