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On August 5, 2016, the National Drone Racing Championship will begin on Governor’s Island in New York City. Pilots from around the country will be competing against each other for three days, their drones flying through the air like Black Hawk helicopters.
Recent technological developments, once thought fantastical, are now common mainstays of 21st century culture. Drones, or unmanned robotic vehicles, are being used now more than ever for both military and public functions. Though we may associate drones with military airstrikes or Amazon’s latest business model, there may be untapped uses for the flying devices. The drone’s rise in the popularity has led to the birth of a new sport: drone racing.
Competitive drone racing is a perfect blend of science and competition. The tech behind it is simple, yet effective. In the competitive scene, drone racing requires two things. The first is a drone (and a means to control it). The typical drone used usually isn’t very big, and most professional racers will customize them to maximize maneuverability. Many of these races have the drones flying against one another at speeds up to 75 miles per hour.
What makes the experience of drone racing so unique, however, is the second requirement. An FPV (or first person view) display is used to pilot the unmanned aircraft. The official rules for the National Drone Racing Championship now require that all racers use FPV to pilot drones during competition. This can be done using a standard display, but is more often accomplished with goggles.
In addition to giving an accurate view of the race, FPV displays almost lend an Ironman-type feel to the competition. The pilot takes on the persona of their drone, and sees just as it sees.
Competitions take place across the country, and there are usually both indoor and outdoor arenas to race. Rules vary from place to place, but the main goal is to send your drone through a series of checkpoints and reach the finish line before the others. Drones can move in three dimensions, as opposed to NASCAR for example, which allows courses to be more creative in design. This means the best drone racers don’t necessarily own the best drones, but are the best pilots.
Drone racing is not only fun; it’s lucrative. Like professional sports such as basketball or football, or even a few eSports like League of Legends, competitive drone racing is attracting sponsorship–sponsors which, in turn, will help spur the growth of the sport. Companies like GoPro naturally support the competitive racing scene. After all, drone camera technology is not dissimilar to their wearable cameras. But corporations like AIG and Ernst & Young are also cashing in on the scene, sponsoring the sport and its developments as well.
Competition does not amount to much if there isn’t a sense of organized play. While drone racing may have once had a Tokyo Drift-style racing feel, today there are organized leagues and formal competition. The National Drone Racing Championship happening in New York City will see drones test their mettle in official speed trials, team races, and freestyle flying contests, where points are awarded for creative flying.
Though they may not yet have the prestige of baseball players of the same caliber, these pilots fought hard to get to the championship, and for them the racing is just as meaningful as the World Series.