With drones getting better and faster, it’s hardly surprising that people want to race them. It’s why the Drone Racing League exists, a six-race championship that challenges the world’s best quadcopter pilots to hurtle around neon-lit, 3D courses at speeds up 80mph.
Think Mario Kart meets a Red Bull Air Race. Or WipeOut meets Flappy Bird. A real-life, first-person view (FPV) video game with VR headsets and customised drones built for speed, agility and high-performance aerial trickery.
“The pilots have goggles that they wear,” explains DRL founder and CEO Nick Horbaczewski. “They get a video feed off the drone. It lets them see what the drone sees as though they are sitting in the cockpit. And then they compete in these exciting high-speed races.”
Each racer pilots a 255mm, 800g DRL Racer2 drone, a custom-built quadcopter with a carbon fibre frame and an integrated HD camera. These drones are fast and manoeuvrable, capable of hitting speeds up to 80mph. With 100 ultra-bright, coloured LEDs affixed to each side, it’s easy to tell the different pilots apart, both at distance and at speed.
“We design and build all of our drones in-house,” says Horbaczewski, “and we’ve developed proprietary radio frequency technology to support the infrastructure of racing.”
This RF technology allows the Racer2 UAVs to speed through twisty-turny race courses in abandoned buildings (like an old power station in New York) or around major landmarks.
The season-opening race on February 22 takes place in Miami’s Sun Life football stadium, while race #2 is set in Hawthorne Plaza, an abandoned shopping Mall in Los Angeles.
Unlike most races, the courses have 3D elements to them, so there are dizzying ups and downs, as well as traditional left and right turns. Watch the videos here and you’ll see the LED-lit drones speeding down neon-framed corridors, zipping through open windows and banking crazily to avoid huge concrete pillars.
Or not avoiding them. The DRL has its fair share of spectacular crashes, but each pilot has a number of replacement drones they can use if their reflexes aren’t up to scratch. Besides, nothing rides on a single race. Pilots compete in multiple heats, scoring points by passing checkpoints and finishing the course within a certain time limit.
The pilot with the most points at the end of the heats is the overall winner.
With 17 pilots registered to compete in the inaugural race in February, the Drone Racing League hopes to riff on the popularity currently enjoyed by eSports games like Hearthstone and League of Legends.
Will it catch on? Is drone racing a sport for the future? Only time will tell. In the meantime, you can follow the fortunes of UMMAGAWD, Legacy, Mr. Steele, Zoomas and the other rookie DRL racers at thedroneracingleague.com. — Dean Evans (@evansdp)