If you’ve dipped your toes into the lukewarm waters of recreational drone operation, and if you’ve mastered your FPV aircraft, chances are you’re looking for something a little more. Don’t get it wrong: recreational drones are awesome, as they can provide you with a view of the world as never before achieved by man (not even those men and women who man planes and helicopters). However, there’s only so much site seeing a person can do before they get the urge to fly higher and go faster. If this is how you feel, and if you want to take your drone hobby to the next level, consider drone racing.
What is Drone Racing?
Drone racing is exactly what it sounds like: people racing drones for sport. However, these drones aren’t just any drones that you can pick up at your local hobby shop. Racing UAVs are custom built by their operators, and they are built with precision, speed and agility in mind. However, more on that later.
Drone racing pilots compete with other pilots to determine one of two things:
- Which pilot can operate the best at top speeds; and
- Which pilot has the best overall drone?
They do this by flying at top speeds through seemingly impossible courses designed, mostly, by the Drone Racing League, a league formed in 2016 that focuses on equipping drone pilots with the skills and knowledge to beef up their operating skills. The league’s website also features FPV simulations that help pilots prepare for the real deal (and, you know, without risking all their hard work). The ultimate goal of the competitions, of course, if for all pilots to get their drones across the finish line.
Unlike boat racing or RC racing, drone racing is not for everyone. It requires a lot of time, practice, patience and perseverance to be able to navigate the tough courses put on by the League; without each of those things, you or any other inexperienced pilot risks losing thousands of dollars in a single moment, which is no fun for anyone.
The History of Drone Racing
Though touched on briefly above, it’s important that, as a future drone racer, you understand the history of drone racing. The first FPV drone races were held in Australia and New Zealand, in competitions called the Rotorcross. Inspired by the Outback’s spirit, hobbyists began building their own racing drones in hopes of emulating the competition in other parts of the world. It’s safe to say that those hobbyists were successful.
The concept of racing UAVs grew quickly, and today the sport has gained so much attention that it is expected to soon become a recognized projected virtual reality sport, one of the first of its kind. As mentioned above, leagues are already beginning to form to support hobbyists and to give them a way to show off their efforts, the biggest of which is the Drone Racing League. Moreover, it gives them a way to earn a return on their investments.
FPV Freestyle Racing
FPV freestyle racing is the most popular type of drone racing to date. As you may already know, FPV stands for “First Person Video.” In this style of racing, operators need a camera mounted to their drones connected to FPV goggles, which provide live camera footage of whatever the drone is viewing. This type of drone racing differs from other types of racing in that pilots are forced to trust the footage in order to navigate in and out of tough terrains rather than their view of the drone itself. It is therefore much more challenging, and for those who master it, much more rewarding.
With typical drone racing, the race is meant to show off racing drones’ speeds, but with FPV racing, it’s more about showing off the art and beauty of the drones themselves and of the operators’ proficiency. These types of drones are equipped to navigate a number of different environments and to execute precise maneuvers, which become evident when they can cut through complex courses as if it is nothing.
The Basics of Drone Racing
Drone racing, like all other sports, is subject to rules, regulations and, of course, a point system. If a pilot makes it past at least two checkpoints, he or she is awarded 50 points. Upon completion of the course, the operator’s time is assessed and he or she is awarded 10 points for every second they come in under the two-minute time cap. Pilots are awarded additional points for even completing the course at all. The pilots accrue points over a number of heats, and upon the completion of the last heat, points are totaled. The pilot with the most number of points throughout the entire event wins.
Pilots are awarded points for completing each course because the courses are so complex and intense. Also because of this, these races attract some of the world’s top operators from around the globe, which serves as a segway to the next point…
…Who is the Drone Racer?
Unlike individuals who use recreational drones for photography and fun, drone racers are individuals who are interested in electronics and how they work. They have to be. Many racing drones are self-made, mostly because recreational drone manufacturers have yet to come up with the technology that allows racing UAVs to go as fast as some of those drones do, or to perform such stunts so seamlessly. As a result, most racers are IT professionals and engineers who not only have the knowledge to build a racing done but also, who have access to the tools and equipment necessary to create such a prestige work of technological art.
While most of the competition consists of male IT professionals, there is one woman who competes, a nurse from Texas named Heather McDowell. She and her husband race together on Team Legit, and both specialize in fixed winged drones rather than the quadcopters. Then there is Luke Bannister, who won the World Drone Prix in 2016 and $250,000 to go with the title, at the ripe old age of 15. The World Drone Prix is the biggest event in the drone community, and consists of some of the most complex courses with rules like “overcome a series of obstacles while suffering as few penalties as possible,” “make at least one pit stop per race” and, of course, “finish first.”
The Makings of a Good Racing Drone
While some of a drone’s ability to race relies heavily on the operator, much of it relies on the drone itself. Even the best operators in the world couldn’t make a standard quadcopter pull some of the stunts required to maneuver through the racing courses. Racing drones possess certain qualities, which you need to know about if you ever want to join in on the fun. Top qualities of a good racing drone are:
- Speed: Obviously, a racing drone must be swift in order to compete. However, what may be “fast” by recreational standards (35 to 50 mph) would be a snail’s pace to the racing drone. Racing UAVs are modified to be able to reach speeds of up to 120 mph and still maneuver with grace. Building a vehicle that fast requires heavy modification and a lot of battery power. Most operators remove excess weight to achieve top speeds as well, which oftentimes means getting rid of luxuries like the GPS and landing gear.
- Durability: Racing drones crash, a lot. The courses are complex and the competition is cutthroat. Most racers, when they’re not flying the straight course, are trying to get other drones to veer off course. It is standard for most drones to crash during one of every three flights they do. If you don’t have a drone that is durable and easily fixed, you may end up losing a lot of money on what is, essentially, a hobby.
- Controller: The factory controller that comes with your pre-modified drone won’t hold up with your amped up version. If you are serious about drone racing, and if you want to be able to maneuver without glitches, you need to get a flight controller capable of firmware, a software that is embedded into your drone’s hardware to make it go faster.
- Sight: Finally, your drone needs to have immaculate FPV, otherwise, you’re SOL. In addition to having a high frame rate and a wide field of view, your camera should also be durable and tilted forward at all times.
Why You Should Get Into Drone Racing
Aside from being fun and, as many racers claim, relaxing, racing drones is a great way to gain new experiences. Not only do you get to view the world from a bird’s eye view, but also, some of the top contenders get to travel the world to compete in places such as Dubai, Las Vegas, Miami, and Munich. Moreover, the people you get to meet at these competitions have some of the most intelligent and innovative minds in the world. If accepted into a race, chances are you would be considered one of those minds.
Additionally, FPV racing involves a lot of risks and ample reward. If you’re someone who usually plays it safe, drone racing can give you an outlet that’s not dangerous but that still provides that much-desired adrenaline rush.
Like all great sports, drone racing is not for everyone. However, if you’re serious about racing drones, and if you want to compete with the best of the best, enroll in the Drone Racing League. It has the resources you need to succeed in the air as one of the world’s top UAV pilots.