With the modern world becoming increasingly focused on technological advances, in addition to constant stream of advances in science and engineering, it should come as no surprise that drones have become an enormously popular consumer trend in recent years. Far from being solely within the domains of military and commercial interests, drones have gained traction with tech geeks and hobbyists across the world. Due to the assembly required for most drones, the so-called maker culture of DIY enthusiasts has also played a major role in the growing popularity of consumer drones.
One of the most interesting and exciting developments in the field of commercially-available drones is that of FPV drone racing, where pilots control small quadcopters along predetermined tracks, zipping over rocks and between trees in competition against fellow pilots. In order to facilitate the snap-decisions necessary at such high speeds the drone sends a live video transmission to the user’s goggles or monitor on the ground. This enables the pilot to see from the drone’s perspective as they race along the track.
Drone racing has surged in popularity in recent years, from being essentially nonexistent up until some time in 2013 to being the subject of national competitions in several different countries as of late 2015. One reason for its skyrocketing popularity is the significantly downward trend of the price of drones. Until a couple years ago, commercially available drones were thousands of dollars at their cheapest, making them affordable only for the wealthy enthusiast, or more commonly for business interests. This has changed drastically, and there are even FPV quadcopters such as those offered by Hubson (Hubsan H107D),which are available for under $200, ready-to-fly. Another factor in the increasing popularity of drone racing is the shift from DIY to ready-to-fly.
“Emergence of ready-to-fly, out of the box Racing Drones”
For the first years of drone racing, most pilots would assemble their own quadcopters essentially from scratch, picking up various components from local hobbyist and electronics stores. This required a great deal of technical know-how, and a ton of practice, just to get the drone off of the ground. However, companies such as Team Blacksheep and ImmersionRC began releasing FPV models (ImmersionRC Vortex) that were ready-to-fly, or RTF, right out of the box and consumer interest exploded. The hobby was no longer confined to those willing to spend hours on end soldering together bits and pieces, but could now be explored by anyone with a few hundred dollars. Over time, prices have decreased and quality has increased to the point where today a high-performance racing drone can be bought for under $400. From humble, unknown beginnings only several years ago, the drone industry has become one of the fastest growing in the world, with nearly one million units sold in 2015 alone in the US.
“The sport gained notoriety when Miami Dolphins owner Steve Ross pitched in $1 million to the Drone Racing League”
The future of drone racing in particular looks especially bright. Sponsors have been racing to fund start-up leagues in order to stake a claim in this growing field, with some of the biggest names in sports getting involved. The sport gained notoriety when Miami Dolphins owner Steve Ross pitched in $1 million to the Drone Racing League, now one of the largest competitive associations for drone racing in the world, after its founding that very same year. The League has planned six major events across the United States for 2016, with CEO Nick Horbacwezski stating his desire to move the sport away from a handful of tech hobbyists and towards a more general demographic of both participants and spectators, as well as professional pilots. Dozens of similar leagues have been established across the world, a testament to the sky-high trajectory of the growing sport.
In many ways, drone racing is truly meant to be one of the biggest sports of the future. The combination of remote-controlled quadcopter flight with the “virtual-reality” headsets of the pilots and spectators is futuristic enough in its own right, but the insane levels of speed, precision, and agility involved in quadcopter racing sets an entirely new precedent for competitive sports. Those who have had the opportunity to pilot an FPV drone describe the experience with practically religious zeal, emphasizing the all-encompassing immersiveness of flying at nearly 100 miles per hour, as well as the adrenaline rush that comes with narrowly avoiding obstacles and executing hairpin acrobatic maneuvers at such speeds.
“FPV Drones turns the world into your own playground”
The versatility of the sport is another huge feature. Drone racing leagues are not confined to long stretches of open track as in other racing sports, and as a result there are a wide variety of environments available to be used. Dense forests, abandoned urban environments, and even artificial, three-dimensional obstacle courses are just a few of the spaces available for drone racing. This aspect combines competition with exploration in a way that has never in any other sport, and many future tracks will likely challenge not only speed and agility but also careful navigation.
“Drone Racing will offer an immersive spectator experience”
In addition to being a ton of fun to participate in, drone racing is an incredible experience even from the perspective of a spectator. Not only will audiences be able to watch races from the stands, they will also have the opportunity to view the video feeds from the drones themselves. It is easy to imagine that in just five years, audiences across the world will be able to watch drone races stream live through their computers or phones, seeing the same video feed being monitored by the pilot himself. Never before has a sport so seamlessly blurred the distinction between merely spectating and directly participating in such a way as this. With the additional potential of huge sponsorships for pilots from drone manufacturers and other tech companies, drone racing will inevitably become the fastest-growing professional sport within the decade.
For those of us who have been involved in quadcopter racing for some time now, this surge in popularity has been and will continue to be an exhilarating experience. For those who are on the fence about buying their first drone, I sincerely urge you to give it a shot and take part in one of the most exciting trends within both technology and sports that has occurred in recent years.