Drone racing is like Formula 1 meets Star Wars. In a good way
Wipeout, the 1990s PlayStation classic, envisioned the future of motorsport as high-speed anti-gravity races. Races not bound by traditional roads, but tracks that could take place in the sky, bring in loops, barrel rolls and bring together the best of aerial sports with the close-quarter tension of a Formula 1 race. While that dream remains a long way off, I went to Wembley Stadium to see the next best thing: drone racing.
As a spectator sport, drone racing is a little difficult to follow. Penned in behind safety nets – anyone who has tried to pick up and control a drone will immediately understand why – these machines, no bigger than a couple of hardbacks, zip by and are gone from view in seconds. Just like Formula 1, this isn’t a sport made for those who love to see all the action from trackside. This could be enough to kill the sport stone-dead if it weren’t for a handy innovation: FPV.
First-person view headsets allow you to see the race from the same point of view as the pilot does. It’s an exhilarating experience, careening around Wembley Stadium, barrel-rolling down straights and flying high into the stadium’s roof before performing a death-defying full loop. As far as spectator sports go, this is by far the most involving.
Still doesn’t sound appealing? Just imagine the cockpit view in a Formula 1One car, except this time it’s okay if the driver does a barrel roll, loop the loop or makes a hairpin turn at the last minute. Simply put, it’s incredible, and the potential for pushing the feed out as a virtual- or augmented-reality experience only makes the sport more tantalising.
The life of a drone pilot
Being a drone pilot isn’t as straightforward as you’d think. Sure, the world’s best drone pilot is a 16-year-old, but don’t let that fool you into thinking this is child’s play – it takes skill to fly. That skill can be learnt, however, and the barriers to entry are minimal – after all, anyone can build a racing-class quadcopter for a few hundred pounds.
While I, understandably, wasn’t given the controls to a racing drone, I did have a go at flying one of the slower – but equally nimble – quadcopters. This isn’t like flying the DJI Phantom 4 – this tiny quadcopter is twitchy and takes subtle movements to keep it under control. It’s no wonder the pros use hulking pads with precision sticks to keep their drones at full kilter.
While your average drone pilot is likely to still have a job to keep them going, these are no longer hobbyists. Earlier this year British teen Luke Bannister took the title as the world’s best drone pilot, winning the World Drone Prix in Dubai and bagging $250,000 in prize money.
Drone pilots also have the non-profit organisation ERSA (the European Rotor Sports Association) to look after them. Not only does ERSA provide a voice for all rotor-sport pilots, it’s working with other regulatory bodies to bring about a set of standards that every tournament adheres to. ERSA is all about ensuring that drone racing remains inclusive and welcoming to all.