Faster, first-person view, better technology and battles with bottle rockets. Oh, and one experiment with a flamethrower. Confused? Don’t be.
The short list includes some of the reasons why drone racing and other drone-based sports are taking off in a big way, both professionally and among amateur enthusiasts.
“Drone racing growth is, in part, thanks to technology advancements like miniaturisation and falling cost of electronics, which make flight controllers and drones significantly more affordable. The same goes for battery and motor systems,” Chris Ballard, Director of Communication of the drone-racing organisation Freedom Class Racing, says.
It's a success that also builds on successfully mixing a DIY ethic, 21st-century technology and a punk attitude towards established rules and ways of doing things – which I guess is how we got to the flamethrower experiment.
75 countries waiting for drones
Drone racing is perhaps the best yardstick for drone sports’ rising popularity. It involves pilots flying remote-controlled drones through courses with gates and obstacles. The rules are simple – whoever gets their drone through a number of laps of the course the quickest is the winner.
The drones have cameras on the front that stream images in real time to first person view (FPV) goggles worn by the pilots. The result is like sitting on the nose of a very small fighter aircraft as it zooms around outdoor stadiums, underground hallways, factory buildings or smaller courses inside houses or tents.
The Drone Racing League (DRL) provide an excellent illustration of how popular the sport is becoming. DRL hold races across the globe and films them using a mix of camera drones, stationary cameras and the FPV video from the racing drones. The combination has proven a hit with viewers. DRL launched its first season in 2015/2016 and some of the race videos have had millions of views online. DRL events were also shown on TV in many countries and the organisation expect the coming season to be broadcast in up to 75 countries.
“Part of the fascination is seeing these drones whizz around at 80 miles an hour. Racing enthusiasts also appreciate that this is the first true form of racing in three dimensions,” Nicholas Horbaczewski, CEO and founder of Drone Racing League, says.
Spectators at live events can also follow the action through FPV goggles, which let them see what the pilots see. An experience often compared with Star Wars or a computer game.
DIY punk sumo battles
Drone racing is not the only kind of drone sports out there. In the Bay Area around San Francisco, drone enthusiasts and members of the maker community have slowly been developing what could be describe as drone sumo wrestling, or drone wars, since 2011.
“It started out being a bunch of geeky maker friends who would meet up in someone’s garage on Friday nights to fly drones and smash them together in battles,” Marque Cornblatt says.
The fights have involved experiments like strapping bottle rockets or paint guns to the drones and firing a shotgun at one. There was even one early example of a drone enthusiast strapping a small flamethrower to his drone to see how it would work. Details on what happened remain sketchy…
The events quickly grew from five – six friends hanging out to 150 – 200 spectators trying to cram into garages or old factory buildings to watch the battles.
The anarchic events gradually turned into a more set frameworks of rules and the Aerial Sports League, where Cornblatt is now the CEO. The organisation arranges both drone racing and drone sumo battles in ways that remain true to the organisation’s maker roots.
For example, during drone sumo pilots have limited time to repair their drones and send them back into the fray if they are knocked down. The loser is the drone that quite literally can’t get back up before the clock runs out.
Just getting started
Drone sports are still in their infancy and we are nowhere near seeing its full potential. One reason is that the entry price for drone tech has been dropping steadily. It'll soon cost as little as $100/€95 for a full starter pack with drone, controller and FPV goggles. A very welcome development if you’re flying drones around at 130kph or fighting them. Both invariably lead to crashes. Then there's the fact that drones – and thereby drone sports - can add new technologies.
“One of the things that gets me excited is how open to interpretation and development the area is. I’m personally working on developing a system that lets you fly the drone without having to use your hands. It’s based around eye tracking and other technologies,” Cornblatt says.
The same applies to the game formats. Things like king of the hill-style games, or more collaborative-style games. There might be full drone battles between teams. Then there's the possibility of adding tracer tech to drones, which really blows the doors wide open in regards to full dogfighting games.
For drone racing, the Holy Grail is maturing the streaming technology to a point where all viewers have the option of following the action via FPV or VR goggles and perhaps even switch viewpoint between the different drones.
“At a live event we are already seeing stadium sports go deeper with fan engagement via full stadium Wi-Fi and there have been examples of the use of AR to provide real-time statistics overlaid on the action itself. The rise of VR in the living room could provide an incredibly immersive racing experience unlike anything the world has seen,” says Dave Heavyside, Creative Director at Freedom Class Racing.