The new, underground sport of first-person drone racing – Ars Technica

If you hadn’t noticed, drones and quadcopters are rather popular right now. Hardly a day goes by without some kind of automated or remotely piloted aircraft somehow causing a ruckus, or providing a new way for militaries and cinematographers alike to get the shot they need. What you might not have noticed, however, is that there is an underground movement to turn drone flying into a sport.

Known as FPV (first-person view) drone racing, or sometimes FPV quadcopter racing, the sport involves building and modifying quadcopters for speed and manoeuvrability, adding a virtual reality-style headset with a live video feed from the drone, and then finding safe and legal places to fly. Racers compete in heats or time trials, speeding around courses at anything up to 60mph (100km/h)—and having a load of fun in the process. This sport, which seems to appeal to aspiring pilots, makers, and computer game fans alike, has all the adrenaline of flight, while also providing enough crashes, smashes, and collisions to keep even the most ardent sports fans happy.

For the past three months, I’ve been photographing the fledgling sport at various locations throughout the UK. I’ve found that there is much more to it than a bunch of geeks comparing voltage signals or PID settings in the woods on a Sunday.

“When I put those goggles on… I cannot think about anything else for a few intense moments.”

While FPV drone racing attracts a mixed bag of racers of all ages, they all have one common interest. “We just love flying,” said Jonny Banton, a pilot who often acted as my guide and translator in a world filled with techy terminology. “Its like a video game with DIY skate sensibilities,” Dom Robinson, a racer from Brighton, told me.

I wanted to capture not only the excitement of racing and the technical side, but also the personalities of the people and their experience of flying. Pilots often alluded to a sense of escapism. “When I put those goggles on I’m in a completely immersive space where I cannot think about anything else for a few intense moments,” said Robinson. It puts you in “an entirely new dimension with your surroundings,” Matt Denham, a racer from Haywards Heath, said. “It’s about as close to being a bird as you can get.”

There’s also a strong aspect of camaraderie, social interaction, sense of community—and a good sprinkling of quirkiness. There’s nothing quite like watching a grown man yelp, willing his drone to fit through an impossible gap, while at the same time twisting his head around manically as if that could squeeze the last inch of performance out of the thing—only to have the crowd, all watching on monitors, double over as the pilot misjudges the space, clips a rock, spins into a tree, and wedges his drone somewhere deep on the course. Now that’s something you don’t get in many other sports.

Hidden Valley

I first heard about FPV racing via Airgonay, a French group of FPV pilots who made the, perhaps obvious, comparison between their sport and the pod racing seen in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. I remember thinking at the time, as I watched the video, that this was going to be huge.

Fast forward a year and I’m taking in events at the world-famous polo course at Cowdray Park Estate—turns out that Lord Cowdray’s son, Monty, is a pretty good FPV pilot—Wealden House in East Grinstead, and an impressive course on a farm outside Brighton nicknamed “Hidden Valley.”

Yet these are far from mainstream events. There is a unique vibe to each location, and a homegrown, underground feel where pilots pitch in where they can; one might organise transportation, another a generator, someone will volunteer to marshal or referee, and yet another will bring a barbecue for all. Palpable excitement grows as courses get designed and built, scorecards get ticked, heats drawn, and prizes, if any, announced. Then, at last, it’s race time, and the air is filled with the whine of motors and whirl of rotors as the practice runs begin.

“Once you try it you’ll be hooked.”


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