Standing at the cusp of the second decade of 21st century, it can be safely said that technological advancements have never been more bleeding edge, or indeed, more diverse. Neither has technology ever been a more indispensable part of an individual’s life as it is now. What started almost two centuries ago as the Industrial Revolution has now reached its zenith and made technology an inalienable identity of human civilization.
Like almost everything else, technology has left its mark on the field of sports as well. Sports have also evolved beyond recognition, in no small part due to the integration of technology. Even traditional sports, which have been around for much longer than the technology that defines them now, have been unwitting beneficiaries of these advancements. The ball in soccer or the loops in basketball may have remained unchanged, but their stadiums have changed as has the way these sports are broadcast, all thanks to technology.
While these are significant achievements in and of themselves, it’s an entirely different ball game when technology directly leads to the invention of a sport, and give birth to a multi-billion dollar industry.
Welcome to the world of drone racing! It’s exhilarating in here, and surely you cannot help but dig in and indulge.
Drone racing: Where it all began?
Like the internet and wireless communication, the first drones were developed for military usage. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have been around for over a century and had caught the fancy of the likes of Nikola Tesla, who wrote a paper describing a fleet of aerial combat vehicles capable of flying solo back in 1915.
However, drones, as we know them today, are a product of the 90s. A 2011 article published in the Smithsonian’s Air & Space magazine details what is arguably the birth of FPV (First Person View), as transmitters and cameras finally became small and light enough to fit into these small aircrafts.
The first use of fast drone comparable to the ones that are used today in drone racing can be traced back to a certain Raphael ‘Trappy’ Pirker and his Team Black Sheep. They became an overnight sensation when they uploaded a video of a fixed-wing drone flying over the Statue of Liberty.
Those were the first steps of what would subsequently become the humongous drone racing competitions.
The saga of professional drone racing
Organized drone racing, as a discipline, is still in its nascent stage. The first known competitions were held in Australia sometime in 2013. Those and most other drone races to this day are still mostly underground events without any centralized organizational structure.
However, over a span of just 5-odd years, drone races have evolved beyond any expectations and announced themselves unequivocally. As the sport began to become mainstream, spectators started to pour in, and with them came the sponsors with millions of dollars, TV and satellite rights and everything else associated with any major sporting event.
The first-ever Academy of Model Aeronautics sanctioned Santa Cruz FPV Drone Racing was held in 2015, followed by the first US National Drone Racing Championship in Sacramento just a couple of months later.
The following year, US National Championship was hosted by the newly formed Drone Sports Association, after a failed merger attempt between previous hosts RotorSports and International Drone Racing Association (IRDA).
Unperturbed, the International Drone Racing Association (IRDA), organized the first World Drone Prix in Dubai in 2016. The event was a runaway success. It was not an amateur event anymore as is evident by the fact that the total prizes added up to over a million US dollars, which attracted over 150 contestants from across the globe. Jordon ‘Jet’ Temkin earned his place in the history books after becoming the first champion of the event, bagging $100,000 in the process. He was also named the world’s first and at that time, only, professional drone pilot.
Another pioneering event in the history of drone races was the introduction of the Drone Racing League in 2016, the objective of which was to establish this discipline as a ‘sport of the future’. The first DRL race was held at the New Miami Stadium, home ground to the Miami Dolphins, whose owner Stephen Ross invested $1 million in DRL.
The following year, this Drone Racing League stamped its legitimacy loud and clear as several sports networks, ESPN included, clamored for its broadcasting rights. Ultimately, the race was broadcast in 90 countries across all five continents. The thousands of fans in the arena and the millions back at their homes wanted more, and given the high adrenaline rush of these races, who can blame them?
After a successful exhibition by DRL, interest in drone racing shot up higher than the popularity of Hollywood stars. YouTube videos of drone racing continued to garner millions of views; sponsors and advertisers duly took notice. Money began pouring in from global sponsors like Pepsi, GoPro and Mountain Dew. The DRL itself has attracted funding worth over $8 million in a little over two years.
Today, there are multiple leagues at a global stage, races sponsored by the likes of ESPN, and various other high-octane competitions all across the world.
One of its most prolific proponents is the DR1 race series, sponsored by Mountain Dew. It’s first race, organized in 2016, was broadcast on Discovery Channel as well as Science Channel, apart from the usual online live streams. This series is arguably the most competitive example of drone racing, with over 700 chapters spread worldwide contested by over 10,000 pilots.
Drone races: The what and how of it
Even as drone racing continues to garner mass interest and support, there are still skeptics who are indisposed to regarding it as a sport, and dismiss it merely as a hobby.
Well, while every individual is entitled to his/her opinions, racing drones tick all the right boxes to be considered a professional sport.
The Cambridge dictionary defines sport as ‘a game, activity or competition requiring skills and is played according to a set of rules, for enjoyment or as a professional endeavor’. Which part of drone racing does not comply with this definition, again?
Regardless of detractors, drone racing continues to charter newer heights with each passing day. Its rules are clear- like all races, you have to reach from Point A to Point B before everybody else. Here are a few features and regulations of drone racing competitions for your better understanding.
• Races are typically quite short, often lasting less than a minute. Emphasis is laid both on speed and maneuverability. Some high-end drones, such as DRL’s Racer X can peak speeds of up to 200mph.
• There are both do-it-yourself and ready-to-fly competitions. DIY racers are arguably the more passionate of the two, having built the drone from scratch. Some major leagues, however, have an RTF approach, where participants race with event-sponsored drones.
• Pilots sport an FPV goggle that streams a live feed from the camera installed at the drone’s front. Pilots depend on this transmission to control their drones.
• A typical racing drone model is approximately 25cm wide diagonally, and features an H-layout, unlike the standard X-shape of consumer drones. Comparatively, DJI Phantom 4 is 35cm across.
Drone racing, as a sport, is growing from strength to strength. It is now moving beyond its traditional markets of the US, Middle East and Oceania (Australia & New Zealand), to the less explored Asian and African territories. The future seems exciting for drone racers and spectators alike, and why not? After all, who doesn’t love to fly, even when it’s via a medium?