Drone racing: fast, furious and invisible to the human eye

Steve Hogarty
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16-year-old world champion Luke Bannister

Last Wednesday, in front of an audience of literally dozens of tech journalists, Wembley Stadium played host to its inaugural drone race, organised by 4G telecoms giant EE and computer-chip wizards Qualcomm.

Four tiny and remote controlled quadcopter drones zipped around the arena’s cavernous stands, piloted by an international squad of competing pilots, each deftly navigating a slalom course of inflatable cones, LED-rings and flashy pyrotechnics.

The burgeoning new sport is called FPV Drone Racing, in which competitors slip into a fetching pair of goggles, allowing them to pilot their drone from the ‘first person view’ of its on-board camera. It is, by their own reports, like becoming a bird. A very fast, robotic bird.

The specialist racing drones are roughly 20cm long and can reach top speeds of up to 150km/h, demanding split-second reaction times and fine control from their pilots.

And top pilots stand to earn serious prize money, as drone flying contests begin to attract racing talent from all over the world.

Last year, 16-year-old world champion Luke Bannister took home prize money of $250,000 for winning gold at the World Drone Prix in Dubai.

Back at Wembley, drone racing is an odd sport to spectate. Too fast and tiny to see with the naked eye, the drones are best viewed in first-person through the same goggles worn by the racers. Onlookers faced safety concerns too, made to stand behind nets designed to keep them safe should the drones crash, explode or turn sentient and try to chase everyone over a cliff.

But it’s exciting all the same, an emerging sport to be enjoyed by our robotic grandchildren.

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