If you’ve been tuning into ESPN lately, you’ve likely heard a lot of talk about FPV drone racing and the crazy complex courses that it entails. You’ve also wondered to yourself what the fuss is all about and, if you’re being honest, how you can enter the competition. This post is designed to put your curiosity to rest.
Drone racing is not easy. Yeah, you may have operated a recreational UAV at one point or another in your life, or you may even take your recreational drone out to the beach every Sunday afternoon to catch some good shots of where you’re too afraid to swim out to. However, using drones for photography and adventure is not the same thing as racing them through complex aerial tracks while incurring as few penalties as possible. Not even close.
Most well-built racing drones can fly at speeds of more than 85 mph, with some of the faster models hitting speeds of 120 mph. Your recreational drone tops out at 50, max. Drone racing has to come almost as a second nature if you want to be successful at it, much like swimming does for Michael Phelps, or biking does for Lance Armstrong. If it doesn’t feel right to you, you’re not going to last long.
That said, don’t be deterred by the difficult nature of drone racing. After all, if it wasn’t hard, everyone would be doing it. Drone racing can be extremely rewarding, but to get to that point, you need to thoroughly understand the sport, build a racing drone and train. While this post won’t help with the last two requirements, it can assist with the first.
What is Drone Racing?
Drone racing is more or less what it sounds like: a number of pilots racing drones to the finish line. However, unlike with a 100-yard dash or an 800-mm race, the judges of a UAV race aren’t just concerned with which FPV drone can get to the finish line fastest. No, these judges are there for the spectacle, just like the media and all the sport’s followers.
Have you ever seen the Blue Angels? If not, chances are you have at least heard of them, right? The Blue Angels are a group of Navy and Marine aviators who wow the U.S. with their aerial acrobatics conducted in the surprisingly agile McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornets. Well, a typical drone race consists of those types of stunts, but on a smaller scale, of course.
FPV racing competitions consist of some of the most high-tech UAVs ever created whizzing through the air at top speeds performing complex maneuvers such as the Lazy Headslide, Inverted Backflip, Step Roll 360, Silly Straw, Corkscrew, Sidewinder and Trifecta 180 in, around, under, over and through obstacles placed strategically throughout a track. Not sure what those stunts are? You’re not alone, which is why The Drone League provides newbies with this handy Trick-Wiki.
With FPV drone racing, operators must rely on a camera attached to the front of their custom-built aircrafts to navigate the courses. These cameras send live footage directly to pilots’ head-mounted display, which they use to see where their drones are headed, what they’re doing and what obstacles lie before them.
In the early days of drone racing, pilots would have their feeds sent to monitors, but that proved to be ineffective. For many operators, having the feed right before their eyes makes it feel as if they’re the ones doing the actual flying, thereby giving them a greater ability to control with little error. For that first-person point of view, pilots operate with googles, a transmitter, and controller, each of which works together to provide seamless real-time footage from which the operators work.
Unlike recreational drones, racing drones have zero built-in stabilization. If you’ve ever flown a drone without stabilization, you know how difficult a destabilized drone can be to man. Now, imagine flying that drone but at four times the speed of what you did before. While performing stunts through obstacles to avoid crashing. THAT is what drone racing is like.
The Competition Types
Like with foot racing or car racing, there are various types of drone racing competitions, which vary across the globe. The U.S., for instance, conducts its races in the same underground style as Australia. These races are held indoors, and each pilot is required to use the same quadcopter, which levels the playing field. Unlike with NASCAR or other types of drone competitions, there is no mix of technical and mechanical skills; it is purely about drone operation.
In most every other competition, competitors are allowed to use whatever drone they please, with one husband-wife team even opting to use fixed winged drones to race, which are more like airplanes than they are the drones you may be familiar with.
One drone racing league, which has its roots in Florida but that now has more than 600 chapters around the world, organizes its races much like boxing matches. Each race is categorized into a “class,” but instead of competitors being separated based on just weight, they’re separated based on drone type, such as fixed wings, race wings or multirotor. Within each main class, competitors are then further separated based on weight and power. This allows pilots to focus less on the mechanical aspects of their drones and more on the art of flying.
While many leagues host indoor races, or races held in manmade arenas, DR1 Racing hosts outdoor meets on courses that feature a mixture of both manmade and natural obstacles. This league recognizes the fact that drones got their start as recreational aircrafts used to afford humans a bird’s eye view of unchartered territories, and so it forges the human desire to explore with the innate need to go beyond the limits (i.e. seek an adrenaline rush).
Can You Join the Competition?
While there is no rule as to who and who cannot try out for drone races, the leagues don’t just let anyone join the competition. If they did, the races would be a disaster. Remember, racing drones fly at speeds of between 85 and 120 mph, and they must do so while navigating around and through tricky obstacles. If an inexperienced pilot were to join the fleet, he or she could cause several experienced operators to crash, which would be devastating. Racing UAVs are not cheap to build, and beefing up a typical drone requires a lot of technical skill, time and, of course, money.
That said, the Drone Racing League, which is by far the biggest and most recognized drone racing organization in the world, requires pilots to first prove their skills before they’re allowed to enter competitions. They do this by conducting a series of tryouts, with each event proving to be more difficult than the one before it. If a pilot passes a certain number of tryouts, he or she may be granted access to an event for amateurs, which is kind of like the farm league for drone operators.
The Drone Racing League offers a number of resources, including manuals, videos and simulators, to help amateurs familiarize themselves with the sport. It recommends that novice pilots begin with simulation before they attempt to fly their own racer even in private. These simulators help newbies get an idea of the reaction time necessary to fly at high speeds, as well as what kind of tricks are expected from pilots on the course.
Of course, you will also need the right equipment. Before drones are allowed to enter a competition, they are assessed to make sure that they’re up to league standards. Standards vary from league to league so it would be best to decide which league you want to join and familiarize yourself with its requirements before investing a significant amount of time into training or building your FPV drone.
Bearing that in mind, your drone should be fast, durable and agile. As mentioned above, the Drone Racing League has several resources available to racers, which include manuals and guides that provide extensive information on the types of drones being used for racing and what parts you may need to improve your equipment even further. This guide can help you find the best racing drone for first-time racers.
If you’re serious about drone racing, treat it as you would any other sport. Take classes, seek guidance and advice from experienced pilots and join a team. Not all drone racers compete against each other; in fact, many work together to outsmart the competition and ensure that the team takes home a prize and not just an individual. These teams are comprised of individuals who are willing to share their knowledge and help others who may be more inexperienced or less knowledgeable than them.
The Wonderful Word of Drone Racing
Drone racing isn’t just about the competition, it’s about community. The minds behind the drones are brilliant, the people friendly and the fans supportive. In short, it’s a wonderful community to be a part of.
If you want to break into the racing world, you have a lot of work cut out for you. However, all that hard work will pay off when you’re given the opportunity to compete with the best of the best and to show off your skills to the world.