Fascination with flying coupled with technology innovation is speeding the sport of drone racing into the mainstream.
At times, they’re merely a blur, hurdling through the air at 90 mph and banking a few feet above the ground. But one thing is clear about racer drones — they are turning the thrill of flying into a competitive sport almost anyone can play.
In its nascent state, the sport of drone racing is already a rapidly expanding global phenomenon complete with leagues, television rights, and professional pilots who compete for top dollars and bragging rights. Drone racing captivates newcomers and experts because it pushes the limits of modern technology and the human ambition to fly.
“We are the fastest growing sport that absolutely nobody knows about,” said Shawn O’Sullivan, who handles press relations at MultiGP and is an avid drone racer himself.
As the largest drone racing league in the world, MultiGP has 22,000 international pilots and over 700 active chapters in every U.S. state and on nearly every continent, according to David Roberts, president of the league.
“It’s a grassroots growth,” said Roberts, describing the explosive growth of drone racing. “Every time we throw these races, people show up.”
In this high flying sport, players compete against other pilots on an obstacle-laden track while flying in first person view (FPV). Equipped with FPV goggles, pilots are fully immersed in what the drone is seeing. As the action unfolds in front of them in real time, they get the sensation of flying.
“Every human — past, present and future — at one point in time has dreamed of flight. It doesn’t matter where you grew up, it doesn’t matter when you grew up,” said O’Sullivan, “It’s at the core of the human existence.”
“When people realize they can actually do that, that’s when they get involved with drone sports.”
Taking to the Skies
Development of the new sport has also been spurred on by other organizations, such as the Drone Racing League (DRL), which found an even wider viewership and distribution for the sport.
“More than 100 million people have viewed our content digitally and more than 50 million fans tuned in on TV,” said Nicholas Horbaczewski, CEO and founder of DRL.
Fans from 75 countries have tuned in to watch DRL high-speed drone racing on the most-watched sports broadcast networks in the world — including ESPN, ProSieben, Sky Sports, FOX Sports Asia, OSN and Disney XD.
Racing small, bee-like buzzing drones around obstacle courses is exhilarating, but some pilots are expanding the sport by racing giant drones that span roughly three feet (one meter) from motor to motor. In many cases, these giant drones are twice the size of those used at popular competitions like MultiGP and DRL, according to drone enthusiast Eddie Codel, who is also the director of the Flying Robot International Film Festival.
He said they can have all the agility and speed of their smaller mini-quad counterparts, but they pose bigger challenges for builders and pilots. They can also create more spectacular crashes compared with smaller drones, which is painful for pilots but unforgettable for spectators.
Whether it’s small or giant drones, drone racing’s meteoric rise is being powered by growing interest in the sport and rapid innovation in UAV technology.
“About a year ago we were running 40 to 60 mph speeds, now we are doing 60 to 100 mph speeds depending on the track and course design,” said Todd Wahl, founder of Atlanta’s Drone Racing Club.
Despite the rapid progression in technology, it’s still challenging for most people to dip their feet in the sport.
“Getting started in drone racing can be expensive. I tell people they should expect to pay $500 to $1,000 to get started,” said Travis McIntyre, a prolific drone racer and YouTuber who is known as m0ke within the drone flying community.
Compared to some mainstream sports, where all that’s needed is a ball, that price tag can often seem prohibitive.
There’s also the time commitment required to build and maintain a working drone. Most racer drones don’t come ready-to-fly, requiring some technical skills to get the UAV airworthy enough to compete.
Companies like Bolt Drones are attempting to address this challenging aspect of drone racing.
“We hope to be the stepping stone for anyone that wants to get into drone racing,” said Vay Ho, the head of Bolt Drones, a company that’s aiming to sell its complete drone racing kit at a price point that’s accessible to the mass market.
Bolt currently retails at $200 and is one of the few racing models ready to use straight out of the box.
“Making the technology easier, making it ready to fly, allows someone with limited technical know-how who still has a passion for flight to get out there, charge up the battery and just go fly,” said O’Sullivan.
Flying High into the Future
The future of drone racing relies on good education, according to Roberts and O’Sullivan. Introducing a student to drone racing can change their academic and career trajectory, as drones stand at the intersection of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
“Sometime in the near future, drone sports — not only racing but freestyle as well — will eclipse the X Games,” said O’Sullivan. “Everyone in the world wants to fly through the air like Tony Hawk, but with FPV everybody actually can.”
In the future, he anticipates high school and collegiate drone racing will enter the drone scene.
“We’re finding out that the competitors can be younger and younger,” O’Sullivan said. “The young guns are running circles around us.”
Both Roberts and O’Sullivan see a world where moms and dads go down to their local high school field on a Friday night to cheer their son’s or daughter’s drone race, rather than their football game. As they sit in the grandstands, they can even fly along with their child using their own FPV goggle headsets.
“We want to share this with everyone,” O’Sullivan said.
As the drones get faster and the technology gets better and cheaper, that vision soon will be a reality.