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The Growing Sport Of Drone Racing

30 October 2017

The Growing Sport Of Drone Racing

It is the latest hobby to have spread across the world and I'm sure that you have all seen a glimpse of drone racing. It’s not hard to spot as several small X shaped flying drones weave their way through a neon-lit obstacle course. It seems to be all over the place, and for good reason as over the last two years, it’s turned from a niche amateur sport to an international motorsport phenomenon. But how did it get to be this way?

Answering this question requires some knowledge of drones themselves. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have been in the public eye since the Cold War; however, the kind of drones used in racing are much smaller than anything on the political spectrum. The most common types of drones here are radio-controlled aircraft (RC aircraft) or commonly known as quadcopters.

The term “radio-controlled aircraft” is simple enough to understand. At it's most basic, a small machine that flies via a remote control by an operator at ground level. Because this isn’t too far from the general definition of a drone, quite a few types of drones fall into this category. However, most RC aircraft have wings that are locked into a fixed position. Here’s where this can get complicated.

RC aircraft fly using electricity as they’re battery powered. To achieve in-flight stability, they use servo mechanisms (shortened to “servos”), which convert electricity into motion using negative feedback. As the signal from the remote is fed to the aircraft, the servos decode the signal and feed it back to the remote in a way that cancels out unsteadiness. 

Most RC aircraft use four servos, individually they control height, left-right direction, roll, and speed. However, many smaller aircraft (such as the ones used in racing) only have two servos, one to control the motor speed, and one to control steering.

Quadcopters, on the other hand, are a form of rotorcraft as they fly using rotors, which are basically propellers that face up. In short, if an RC aircraft is analogous to a plane, a rotorcraft is analogous to a helicopter. 

However, in addition to being mechanically simpler than helicopters, quadcopters have four vertically-turned propellers placed at each end of horizontal masts around the craft. Two of these run clockwise; two run counter-clockwise. A flight computer which is directed via remote control, controls each rotor’s speed, which in turn controls the quadcopter’s direction. 

Quadcopters have become popular in multiple fields in recent years. In addition to being used by various military and law enforcement agencies, various brands are available through hobby stores. Many have remote controlled cameras attached to the bottom and in addition to their relative smoothness while flying, this makes them ideal for photojournalists and videographers.

However, racing drones are typically stripped away to their most basic form, and can run from around $80 to over $500. The drones are physically smaller and measured by distance in length diagonally across the frame in millimeteres of the drone from motor shaft to motor shaft. Typical sizes are 100mm, 150mm, 180mm and 200mm.

Drone racing is simple enough, a number of pilots get together to pilot their respective drones through a set course, and whosever drone finishes first wins. Standards for the sport are typically set by the major international leagues, many of which are based in Australia and the U.S.

DR1 Racing is a Los Angeles-based league that was founded in 2016, and has since become the world leader in drone racing competition, with races in 100 countries and 300 worldwide markets. It has two major competitions – the Micro Series and the Champions Series. 

The Micro Series is the world’s largest micro drone racing series, which features five teams from major worldwide drone and RC aircraft suppliers performing in Hollywood, California. The Champions Series also showcases five teams, and features six races in California, Germany, Ireland, and the Briitsh Isles. They’ve gained major sponsors in the last year as well – among others, American soft drink company Mountain Dew and British courier company DHL both sponsor the Champions Series.

Other major leagues are MultiGP, the Drone Racing League (DRL), and the International Drone Racing Association (IDRA). Smaller leagues vary by country, Australia and the U.S. have large markets for drone racing, as do Britain, Canada, and China.
Due to the large size of the more commercial courses, most racing drones have another feature known as first-person view, or FPV. This means the driver wears a special set of goggles or a monitor that allows them to see an image projected by a camera on the front of the drone. In effect, they see what the drone sees. In a competitive league, the pilot must always wear these goggles, while spectators are also encouraged to wear another set of goggles that allow them to switch viewpoints between drones. 

Racing drones typically have a different design than other types of drones. Most drones used for more photography and video put more effort into hovering for better quality, and the X-shaped design of the drones reflects that. In drone racing, however, the drones are focused on moving forward, not up, so the rotors are placed in an H-shaped pattern. 

The typical battery span is different as well. Because racing drones are designed to move as fast as possible, most drone races are usually less than five minutes. In contrast, photography and video drones are deigned to sit still for longer periods of time – usually between 15 and 30 minutes.

The actual racing course plays a big part in the sport as well. The DR1 Racing Champions Series is certainly one of the more extreme examples, but the layout more or less depends on the league. 

MultiGP, which has more than 500 chapters around the world, lets their chapters design their own courses based on a common set of standards. The DRL, founded in 2015 and broadcast on ESPN, uses a unique indoor single-track course. The set is typically dark, so obstacles are illuminated by multicolored LED lights. More likely than not, this is the kind of drone racing you’ve seen.

Because of the occasionally violent tendencies of the sport (drones, meant to fly quickly forward, aren’t usually well-armored), it’s important to know the components involved in the construction of a quadcopter. While the DRL provides their drones for the pilots, DR1 Racing, MultiGP, and other smaller leagues allow pilots to provide their own drones according to regulations. 

While a big advantage to bringing one’s own drone is that the pilots know how their drones work better, the biggest downside is the pilot is responsible for repairing his or her drone if it breaks. 

Because of this, many drone and RC aircraft manufacturers sell not only ready-to-fly drones – buy it, stick the batteries in, and fly – but also various parts needed to make one’s own drone. This includes an air frame, four motors (one for each rotor), four propellers, various radio transmitters and receivers, and plenty of other components. Aside from an attachable video camera (which can run for up to $400-$500), almost all drone parts can be purchased relatively cheaply online or in-store.

Drone racing is certainly one of the most technologically progressive sports to gain popularity in the last few years. Hot off the heels of a generation that grew up on joystick-controlled video games, it has gained a young audience at an exponential rate. And thanks to technological advances and a fair amount of increasing public interest the sport seems to be going nowhere but up.

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For all of the up-to-date safety information for flying drones in Australia, please refer to The Australian Government Civil Aviation Safety Authority Website -

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