The Facts About Drone Racing

By Hal Simmons •  Updated: 03/10/20 •  8 min read

So you’ve purchased your first drone. You’ve already spent your first few weeks learning to fly, and it’s probably seen the top of your neighbor’s roof more than once. You’ve captured the aerial view of your town and edited in a nice slow beat instrumental as the background music. Now you are looking for more exciting ways to pursue your new hobby. If you are the competitive type, then drone racing may be just what you’re looking for. Whether you keep it as a hobby or turn it into a successful career path, drone racing is sure to keep you on your toes.

Drones have been around since the early 1900s, but it wasn’t until the 2000’s that consumer drones became a part of our everyday lives. Since the Drone Racing League (DRL) was founded in 2015 and the invention of the first-person view (FPV) drone, drone racing has really taken off. In fact, the world of tech sports is beginning to take drone racing more seriously every single day. It’s even considered a professional sport now. Championship races are held all over the world and broadcast on major channels and streaming sites.

Before you are flying all over the world, though, you need to know what drone racing actually is. Like how it got its start, and what it’s continuing to grow into today.

What Is Drone Racing?

Drone racing is a fast-paced sport that requires the full focus of the pilot. The pilots fly their FPV drones through intricate courses featuring obstacles on every axis at speeds tapping out at upwards of 120 mph. Mind you, this is a speed that is achieved in under a second. Each pilot is equipped with FPV drones, goggles, and expertise, and that’s pretty much it!

The FPV drones make it possible for the pilots to have a more immersive experience. It almost feels like a virtual reality video game because the pilot wears the FPV goggles for a live feed presentation of where the drone is. This type of flying takes a bit more expertise to learn, but once you master it, your chances of qualifying for the DRL increase.

The fun part about drone racing is that anyone can do it. There are groups all over where people will get together to fly their drones. Many unofficial races are hosted by groups such as these, where the pilots will come together with their FPV drones. Setting up courses in fields are forests and marking the trail with flags, hula hoops, and pool noodles. Most of the pilots will then post the video of their quadcopter’s flight on YouTube, which has also been a great way to spread knowledge about the sport.

The Drone Racing League

Drone racing has been a fun hobby for drone users to get together and show off their flying skills. It wasn’t until the formation of the DRL, however, that people started to take it seriously. To put it simply, The Drone Racing League took drone racing to the next level. It is now an international tech sport, and the pilots in the DRL are the best of the best.

The events have gotten more elaborate as well, with prize winnings valued at $1 million or more. Some of the top pilots dropped their day job for the sport because they are making six figures from sponsorships alone.

If you are piloting in a DRL race, though, you aren’t flying your own FPV drone. The DRL insists that everyone fly identical drones in which the league provides. Actually, the latest DRL racing drone, the DRL Racer4 Street, is available for purchase on Kickstarter for the low price of $599.00. If you are new to drone piloting, you probably shouldn’t invest in one of these guys just yet, but if you would like to try a more affordable option ARRIS X220.

Learning to fly the Racer4 Street is more difficult than you would think. The Racer4 Street is known for being quite different than other drone models. It isn’t equipped with a self-stabilizing mode. Meaning, when you take your hands off the controls, the drone won’t hover, it will crash. Thankfully its modular design helps with repairability, but this drone is definitely not for beginner pilots.

DRL Hosted Events

DRL events showcase elaborate courses with special lighting effects and multi-level racing gates to further test the skills of the pilots. The lighting and obstacles aren’t the only fun part; spectators also seem to really enjoy the crashes and collisions as well. The fact that no one is actually inside the quadcopters makes the collisions that much more exciting to watch.

The DRL hosts races for pilots of all levels. The course difficulty ranges from level one through five, with the obstacles increasing in difficulty in every level. Then there is the grand finale event, if you will, the world championship. This event truly brings the best pilots together for the ultimate race through the most challenging course.

For a quick look inside one of the DRL courses, you can head over to their website and practice on the drone racing simulator. It gives you an exclusive look into flying an FPV drone. If you want to make the experience more lifelike, use a gaming controller to fly through the course.

DRL events are popping up in every corner of the world, but the DRL brings the races to your home via many different broadcast channels including:

• Twitter
• FOX Sports Asia
• NBC Sports
• Sky Sports

In 2019 the league hosted its fourth season, which was called the Allianz World Championship Season. They held events in places like France, Germany, and even Las Vegas, Nevada. The future only looks brighter for the DRL as they recently launched the Artificial Intelligence Robotic Racing Circuit or AIRR. This is a racing series in which college students will be invited to design an AI that can fly a drone rather than an actual human pilot.

Rules and Regulations

Of course, with any professional sport, there is a system in place for awarding points and assessing the overall performance.

Each race has a number of heats. During each heat, the pilots are awarded points, and the point total is gathered after adding the points received throughout each heat. Pilots are awarded 50 points for passing two checkpoints and visiting the entire course. They are also given 10 points for every second they finish under the two-minute time cap.

There are numerous regulations the pilots have to be aware of at all times so as not to get disqualified. Some examples of these regulations include:

• Pilots must use FPV to fly their quadcopter
• Pilots can only power up video transmitters when instructed to do so
• A pilot may be disqualified for unlawful flight if he/she flies too close to locations that are prohibited.
• All pilots must register their quadcopter
• All pilots have to attend a safety briefing and sign the appropriate waivers
• All pilots have to pass a general mechanics and electronics test executed by the Race Director.
• All batteries have to be transported in LiPo-safe bags
• If the pilot starts prematurely, he/she will lose one lap
• If the pilot loses video footage and can prove that it happened beyond his/her control, then the pilot is given a re-run.
• If the pilot misses a required obstacle (gate or flag), this constitutes a disqualification
• A celebratory lap or excessive celebration will result in a disqualification

Also, if a collision happens before the first gate, the pilot is given a re-run, but if a collision happens after the first gate, it is seen as a DNF (Did Not Finish), and the pilot is not given a re-run. Two or more DNF’s will result in disqualification.

These are just some of the standard regulations, but when it comes down to it, all decisions made by the Race Director or Judge are final. The pilots are to fly in the designated flight zones and nowhere else. For the most part, as long as they arrive on time with all equipment working properly and stay in bounds, they should have a smooth and exciting race.

Competitive drone racing is going on its fifth season, and the sport’s popularity continues to grow. It is highly likely that as the years progress, the sport will continue to grow and evolve, adding more disciplines and harder obstacles along the way. Drone racing is considered a sport of the future. It is one that doesn’t require a lot of physical effort from the pilot, but it does require mental skill, quick hand-eye response time, tech knowledge, and some basic piloting expertise. A little creativity never hurt anyone either.

When Should I Get Into Drone Racing

There has never been a better time to get started in drone racing. If you think this is a sport you could get into, join a local team first. Gain some experience on a local level and hone in on the craft. These local groups have helped expand the hobby of flying drones, but they also prepare you for competitive drone racing.

There is still much to learn about drone racing and drones in general. Technology is evolving every day. Pick up your drone, and maybe one day, you could be one of the top pilots in the world.

Hal Simmons

When I first started flying drones I was always afraid of damaging my drone. I would always be thinking what if. I questioned myself often and as a result it made me question various aspects of flying drones. In the process I learned a lot. This is why I feel I have a lot of information that will be helpful to beginners and intermediate drone enthusiasts. Of course I still have a lot to learn so join me on this journey and I am sure you will enjoy the adventure ahead of us.