In professional drone racing, pilots race multi-copter drones around a stadium, wearing FPV—first-person-view—goggles that surround them with their drone’s POV. Drone racing has a very different vibe from older RC racing hobbies. Most competitors are 13-34, says Nicholas Horbaczewski, founder of the Drone Racing League.
Courses (built in spaces like stadiums, warehouses, and abandoned buildings) are often lit up like a nightclub. And while many pilots have experience in esports and model racing, several have backgrounds in sports like snowboarding and motocross—which bring some surprisingly relevant skills to a sport where the competitors stand still.
That, says Horbaczewski, is because drone racing is more physically taxing than model racing or most video games. The virtual-reality goggles convince your body that you are your drone. “These drones are going over 129km/h,” says Horbaczewski. “You need to make a lot of strategic choices about how you pass, when you pass.” And you need to manage your pumping adrenaline while you make these choices.
Go pro right away
Right now, Horbaczewski is getting ready for the 2019 Drone Racing League Tryouts on February 9, at the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas, where 200-odd pilots will run virtual drone races in the hotel’s Esports Arena. The winner will win a $104,688 contract with the DRL, going on to race physical drones at other DRL events.
While a lot of racing pilots are also hobbyists who build and customise drones, DRL races all use the same drone (usually a new model each season). The pit crew is supplied by the league. So the competition is purely down to the skill of each pilot. This weekend, while there will also be some physical side events, the main competition is entirely virtual, so nothing is down to luck.
Anyone who wants to enter the tryouts can buy DRL’s racing sim for $29 on Steam. There’s no additional entry fee (and no admission fee to attend the race or watch the livestream), but to qualify for the tryouts, you have to complete a qualifying level of the sim in under 9 minutes by February 1.
Join an amateur league
For those of us who can’t make it to Vegas, there are a lot of other ways into drone racing. Horbaczewski got into the sport just four years ago, in a field behind a Long Island Home Depot, before building up his own league. For new pilots, in addition to his own league’s tryouts, he recommends Drone Racing Australia, a drone racing organisation located in Australia.
MultiGP is one of several organisations for amateur drone racing; there are also organisations that focus on drone photography. There’s a lot of overlap; says Horbaczewski: “A lot of our pilots are incredibly talented aerial cinematographers.” DRL pilot Johnny FPV runs a YouTube channel with drone videos of race cars, stunt skiing, and abandoned buildings.
If you need practice just keeping the thing in the air for five minutes, use a sim like DRL’s to practice. Because DRL designed the sim for realistic, exhibition-ready simulated races for actual drone pilots, it’s an effective way to practice your piloting without breaking a lot of $500 racing drones. Once you’ve got the hang of it, kit up and find a local racing club — or go straight to Vegas.