Maybe you’ve heard your friends discussing about drone racing lately, or maybe you saw something about it on YouTube (or on TV, if such thing still exists) and you are probably wondering what it is and why it’s creating all this buzz recently. Here is a modest guide we have compiled for you that discusses this new sport, so that you know what’s going on and can also start racing (if you like speed, have patience for training and some extra bucks).
What is Drone Racing?
Drone Racing is an exciting and competitive sport where pilots control swift drones (also known as quadcopters) and need to fly them through courses at high speed. These courses are delimitated by arcs, poles, arrows, lights and obstacles, similar to what you would see in a Red Bull Air Race competition, but on a smaller scale (and with no pilot onboard).
In general, the quadcopters today are piloted in First Person View (FPV), in which there is an onboard camera that transmits a live video feed to a goggle or monitor watched by the pilot. By using FPV goggles, the pilots feel as if they were onboard the drone, twisting and turning, and sometimes even getting dizzy.
Originally, the same kind of FPV racing was done using RC planes, but nowadays multi-rotor drones are preferred as they are much more stable, agile and easier to fly than RC planes. The use of multi-rotor drones has made FPV flying a more exciting experience, and the ability to enter tight spaces, maneuver over multiple obstacles and do this at high speeds has paved the way towards making Drone Racing popular.
The History of Drone Racing
Drone racing competitions were first organized in New Zealand and Australia. From late 2013 to 2015, drone enthusiasts began manufacturing and tuning small FPV drones, which soon became the standard for this sport, with common model sizes varying from 250 to 330 millimeters (~10-13 inches) from motor to motor (diagonal). Their improved maneuverability, acceleration and better durability in case of crashes contributed to that.
Only in 2015 Drone Racing became a known sports category, with established competitions, registered pilots, different categories (for drone sizes, motor power, etc.), and standard rules. In that year, there was the emergence of some organizations with the sole purpose of organizing these events and promoting the races, for example: DroneWorlds (world competitions) and Drone Nationals (USA competitions). Also, you can check the webpage of the Drone Pilots Federation, which has many rules and etiquette tips for starter pilots.
Today, Drone Racing has gained popularity but it is believed to be still in its initial stages, being only a spark when compared to the blaze it will become in a few years. Some predict that, in the near future, the next big innovation in this sport will be the use of 360-degree cameras to give the drone pilots the ability to check their surroundings during flight, something similar to what we already see on 360° videos on YouTube and Facebook.
How does Drone Racing work?
Like in a car race, competitors have to push to finish with their best time through the courses (and, sometimes, to also overtake their opponents) without crashing the drone into a set of obstacles, while respecting the designated circuit. In more advanced competitions, the pilots must maintain the drone inside a 3-dimensional region, otherwise they face small penalties, and, occasionally, they can even gain extra points by passing through defined structures and checkpoints (like you would do in a Mario Kart race to get the items).
Until recently, drone races would take place in abandoned buildings, whose columns and walls would act as obstacles and define the course. Nowadays, each drone organization, such as the Drone Racing League (DRL), has formulated their set of rules on how to award points and assess the performances of pilots participating in their competitions. For example, in DRL’s competitions, pilots are awarded 50 points for passing at least two checkpoints and finishing the course, and 10 points for every second they spend under the two-minute time cap.
In addition to racing rules, these organizations also provide various resources to pilots to help them acquire and master their flying skills and techniques, and even teach how to assemble their first racing drone.
The intensity and complexity of some competitions has attracted FPV pilots from all over the world. A_Nub, a pilot from Fort Collins, CO, is currently the world leader in DRL. He is a self-taught software engineer and is full-time focused on flying FPV drones. MOke, who calls himself a freestyle pilot, is third. He is from Santa Rosa, CA, and completed both Level 1 and Preseason Gates of Hell competitions that were organized last year.
So, what are the prizes?
Drone Racing is getting more professional with time, and so are its prizes. With a crescent number of pilots and watchers, sponsors are becoming eager to fund larger competitions and prizes. In 2016, the best prize pool was offered by the World Drone Prix that took place in Dubai, with a total prize of $1 million US dollars. That’s right, one million dollars. A teenager from the UK won first place, taking home the astounding amount of $250,000, just for this competition.
Although many competitions still have only fun and enjoyment as prizes, over the next years we expect this to change, with larger competitions across the world, better pilots, drones and prizes.
How to get started in Drone Racing
It’s pretty straightforward to become a drone racer: first, own a drone; second, race it with other people.
You might argue that it can’t be that easy and, of course, it can get however difficult, expensive and demanding as you wish, but starting is easy. As in any competition, you have to focus on 2 things: your skills and your equipment.
Before even talking about advanced FPV quadcopters, FPV goggles, extended-range controllers, first you need to be able to fly a standard quadcopter. Can you comfortably pilot a Syma X5C or a DJI Phantom 4? By pilot I don’t mean race, I mean: fly without crashing. It’s easy and even kids can master it, it only takes practice. If you need some help choosing a quadcopter to practice, check out our Quadcopter Comparison Table, it might help you compare and choose the best models for you.
After this, you can start trying some risky cool maneuvers that will help you overtake your opponents in the future, for example: making curves around objects like trees or walls, passing through holes or windows, and going up and down while flying in a controllable way. As a general rule, please be aware of your surroundings and be very careful to not hit your drone into (or fly too close to) other people and animals, because the propellers can cause severe cuts and lacerations. If want to do things the right way, take a look at our Pre-Flight Checklist.
At any point, you should start piloting only by using the on-board FPV camera. All professional drone racers that I know pilot using FPV video instead of looking at the drone directly, and they do it because it’s the easiest way to fly. If you’ve done everything I wrote here, congrats! You’re almost there.
The last step is to actually find a place that resembles a circuit and practice flying in it. Don’t rush this, you may crash like crazy if you don’t master the basic abilities and still try to fly in a course. All in all, you should build your skills step by step, and you will see that you actually progress a lot over time if you have some discipline. And remember: never forget to have fun!
But what equipment should you use? That’s probably the most common question, not only from beginners, but also from more experienced drone pilots. There is a list of items that can affect your performance: the quadcopter frame, motors, propellers, batteries, camera, antenna, controller, and FPV goggles.
First, your drone needs to be fast, agile, easily maneuverable and resistant, and it needs to follow the general rules of the competitions. Of course you don’t need the best (and most expensive) parts from the beginning, so starting will probably be cheaper than you think. You can either buy or build.
If you decide to buy a ready-to-fly model, you will find a few good offers around, but it will be more expensive than assembling one yourself. As an example, the ARRIS X-Speed 250B will get you started pretty quickly. You can also get an FPV goggle to watch the 5.8GHz camera that comes with the quadcopter, so using a EACHINE VR-007 might be a good idea to start and have some fun. Unless you are eager to assemble things and like wires and screws, I recommend you start buying a ready-to-fly model. Otherwise, just keep reading!
If you want to assemble a racing drone, there are some good online guides to help you with that (we will finish our guide soon :)). I won’t describe in much detail here, but it’s like assembling a new computer: you research the specs, choose compatible parts and then put everything together. The first decision to make is the frame size: the most common frame size is the 250 mm (about 10 inches), which is measured in the diagonal, from motor to motor. Keep in mind that not all frames are created equal, so watch for material quality and rigidity. After that go for the motors, propellers, camera, antenna, goggles. It can be as complex as you’d want.
The main idea in this guide was just to introduce the Drone Racing subject and hopefully help you get started with it. Now go look for competitions around you, gather your friends, find practice sites, make your own drone (or buy one ready to fly), and race around like a pro!