Drone racing in its most exciting form is coming to London in June. Alexandra Palace will host the World Drone Racing League which involves remote control drones capable of 90 mph speeding around a neon lit rollercoaster-like course.
First Person View (FPV) racing, or drone racing combines geeky technology, gadgets, adrenalin and a high level of skill into a pastime that is merging the world of the gamer and that of the extreme sportsman.
Arguably one of the few, if not the only, successful aspects of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, was the adrenalin fueled pod-racing that was just about the only memorable part of an otherwise disappointing film. Children wondered if they would ever see the day that they could swing behind the controls of a jet driven racing pod. Now, with the rise of FPV racing, their dreams can become a reality!
Ever since drones became accessible to the general public it was inevitable that people would start racing them. No one however thought the rise would be so astronomical and now, a number of British pilots are participating in qualifying events throughout the country to gain entry to the Drone World Championships, which is taking place in Hawaii later this year and boasts over £140,000 in prize money.
Luke Bannister, a 15-year-old from Somerset, is one of Britain’s most promising FPV pilots having just returned from the Drone World Cup in Dubai with a cheque for £175,000 having won the competition. Luke is a skinny blue-eyed, wisp of a boy who does not come across a typical “extreme sportsman”. However, he explained: “That is what is so great about this sport. It’s more about mental agility than actual physical strength. Anyone can do it.”
Often wearing boiler suits plastered with various obscure logos – as yet no one, in the uk at least, has got an endorsement deal so the Nike ticks haven’t entered the game yet – the pilots don their goggles and take grasp of their controls which wouldn’t look out of place in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. Then, taking a seat, they seemingly blindly steer their drone around what can be a fairly intricate and technical course.
FPV uses a camera that is mounted on the front of the drone and this sends an image to a pair of goggles that the pilot uses to fly the drone. This gives the pilot an onboard, real-time view so that he can accurately fly the drone at speeds of up to 90mph thus giving the feeling of being at the controls of your very own pod-racer.
Jem Little, 48, the Londoner who founded Formula FPV in Sussex is trying to raise the profile of FPV racing. “One of the common misconceptions is that is expensive to get into.”
Whilst replacing the motor on one of his drones which had just been involved in a crash, Jem explained “you can buy an entry level drone for around £40 and from there you need to go out and crash a lot and basically work out how to fly it. As soon as the controls become second nature, that is when it is time to get competitive and you can get buy everything you need for around £300.”
Although he did point out that some pilots are better than others and crashes can become expensive – “we have a saying – keep calm and buy more blades.”
Emax, a company from California, is one of the leading global manufacturers of racing drones. A company spokesman said their racing drone sales have risen exponentially over the last year. “We are extremely excited about the future of drone racing. Some huge names have got behind it in the States including the owner of the Miami Dolphins who has hosted large scale drone races in the stadium.”
In an excitable manner using sweeping gesticulations to emphasize the flow of the racetracks, Jem Little described the course as being an integral part of drone racing on account that it is what gives it a new dimension when compared to track racing. “The course is vertically challenging, ie you go from racing at ground level to 50 meters in the air. It is like nothing any car racer would have ever experienced before.”
“FPV racing is a mixture of the Red Bull Air Race and Formula 1. It is a very exciting spectator sport.” Indeed he went onto describe the Dubai 1015 Drone Grand Prix that took place at night on a track that seemed more like a roller coaster. The track was lit by neon lights that gave a Tron feeling to this futuristic sport. “One of the beauties is that you can race almost anywhere – from abandoned warehouses to massive stadiums. As long as it is safe its possible.”
The sport is attracting all sorts of people from different backgrounds from geeky gamers who lived in front of a screen to adrenalin seeking daredevils.
Tom Bailey is an extreme sports enthusiast who has been pulled away from kite surfing and rock climbing in favor of FPV racing at the weekends.
He describes the sensation of kite surfing as “exhilarating”, although says it doesn’t compare to the adrenalin you experience from racing drones.
“When you are flying at high-speed it feels as if you are inside the aircraft. It gives you this buzz, this adrenalin rush – you simply can’t beat it. Now we want to make it into a viable competition in the UK. It can rival the success that we have seen in skateboarding and surfing. I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes as popular as the X-games.”
Currently drone racing in the uk is lacking a large scale commercial sponsor which is essential to take it to the next level however those already participating are in no doubt that before too long drone racing will become mainstream. Jem Little quipped, “golf will no longer be the national pastime, actually the golf courses would make rather good race tracks.”