From RC hobbyists to business owners, five-minute backyard flying sessions to high-tech land surveying, drones are changing many aspects our life with their fun, aerial appeal and precise efficiency in a variety of tasks. The burgeoning technology is now nosediving into another part of culture you may not expect: sports. We’re talking about drone racing, or as some call it, “the sport of the future.”
When you think about drones, your mind is probably going to the breathtaking videos you’ve seen online: vast landscapes captured from the air by high-definition camera mounted to the bottom of the drone. Racing drones are built with a very different purpose, the main difference being the first-person view (FPV) camera mounted to the front. Racers are able to fly through the FPV perspective with the help of video goggles connected to their racing drone via radio. The goggles stream real-time video back to the pilot, allowing them to experience the race as though they’re in the cockpit as they blaze through courses at up to 80 mph. The video feeding to the racer isn’t the best quality yet, as high-quality video lags too far behind the real-time feed the pilot needs to successfully navigate through a race. Even at the current grainy quality, it’s still enough to give the sensation of flying that keeps drone pilots coming back for another race. Before we move forward, here’s 5 models we recommend for racing:
1. HUBSAN X4 H107D
If you’re just starting out in your racer training, purchasing a smaller, less expensive drone like the Hubsan X4 H107D FPV quadcopter is going to be one of your best your best options. The H107D is a very popular choice for beginners, ready to fly right out of the box and an affordable way to get into FPV drone racing at about $115.00.
The main feature is of course the FPV camera mounted to the front, but you’ll be watching through your transmitter’s screen instead of goggles. This won’t give you the true FPV racing feel, but being able to look up and see your drone will be helpful as you learn the controls. The 6-axis flight control system is going to give you stable flight indoors or outdoors while you’re learning to fly, and the durable frame and blade guards will help lessen the impact of when you eventually race straight into a tree.
The Hubsan X4 H107D might not be considered a “serious” racing drone, but it’s going to minimize both cost and danger as you explore the FPV racing world.
2. BLADE FPV NANO QX
The Blade FPV Nano QX quadcopter is another great option for keeping the drone small and the cost down for your first venture into FPV drone racing. Like the Hubsan X4 H107D above, this drone isn’t going to get you the top speeds and maneuverability of pricier racing drones, but there are plenty of features packed into this tiny quadcopter that make it an ideal starting drone for a training racer.
The price tag for the FPV Nano QX is going to be a little steeper at about $300, but this drone is one of the only quadcopters this small and affordable to include actual FPV racing goggles instead of a screen on the transmitter. Flying with the goggles is going to be more challenging, but it will give you the true FPV flying experience and allow you to become comfortable with what can sometimes be a very disorienting experience. Blade has also included their innovative SAFE (Sensor Assisted Flight Envelope) technology with this model, making flight easier by helping you take off and avoid crashing. In case you do crash, the Blade FPV Nano QX is small and light enough for indoor flight and easy on your walls.
The Blade FPV Nano QX is a great beginner quadcopter that gives you the immersive FPV flying experience in a small package with a price still more affordable than what is considered a proper racing drone.
3. WALKERA RUNNER 250
If you’ve gotten the feel of racing from micro quadcopters like the Hubsan X4 H107D or Blade FPV Nano QX , the Walkera Runner 250 is the first “serious” racing drone on the list. It has the major benefit of being one of the first proper racing drones to be already assembled and ready to fly (RTF) out of the box.
The Walkera Runner 250 is in the 250mm class (about 10 inches) and can reach speeds up to 40 Km/hr, with accurate and sensitive controls up to an impressive 1 kilometer range. The frame is noticeably more durable than hobbyist quadcopters, constructed from extremely strong carbon fiber materials. The price is going to vary depending kilometer on which package you’re looking for. The most basic set-up has the assembled Walkera Runner 250, receiver, battery, and charger for about $226. You can add features like a camera and on-screen display for an increasing price, but the complete racing package, with FPV video goggles included, is going to cost about $750.
The Walkera Runner 250 may be more expensive for a complete package, but the price reflects a quality racing drone with RTF convenience and the potential for a full FPV experience, goggles and all.
4. LUMINIER G10 QAV250
The Luminer G10 QAV250 is another small, but fully capable racing drone aimed at experienced pilots and providing the flexible range of buying just the drone’s frame to RTF racing drone.
The combination of a lightweight frame and powerful motors has made the 610 QAV250 a proven winner in FPV drone racing events, but such a high-performance drone is going to need an advanced pilot behind the controls. Luminiere is known for their quality, and the durable build of this model is no exception. The features and price of the drone will depend on what sort of kit you’re buying. If you’re looking for more freedom to customize, the basic frame with mounts for motors, FPV camera, and HD camera is about $90. A step up to the ARF (almost ready to the fly) kit adds motors, propellers, and the electronic speed control (ESC) component for about $280. The RTF option is the fully tested and assembled drone for about $550, but you’ll still need to purchase your own transmitter and FPV gear (FPV camera, transmitter, and goggles).
The Luminer 610 QAV250 is a reliable racing option with a proven track record, offering a varying levels of customization for any experienced pilot looking for a RTF racing drone or a foundation to build a winner.
5. STORM RACING DRONE TYPE A
Another solid 250-class choice for your first real-deal racing drone, the Storm Racing Drone Type A is a great option for an experienced pilot looking for high performance and customization.
The Storm Racing Drone has the convenience of being an RTF racing drone. For about $360, you’ll get an assembled drone including everything you need to start racing. FPV video goggles aren’t included in the package, but you’ll still get a transmitter able to stream FPV video with camera 110 degree camera and transmission range of up to 300 meters. Even though it’s an RTF model, the Storm Racing Drone has a lot of potential for modification. No soldering is required for switching out components since they’re all connected by easy electric plugs. The Storm Racing Drone is best handled by an experienced racer, sporting some of the most powerful motors on the market.
The Storm Racing Drone Type A delivers powerful performance and RTF convenience with a high level of customization for an experience racer looking to really fine-tune the next addition to their speedy collection.
Now More About Racing Drones
FPV drone racing is still a newcomer to the sports world, having only taken off in the past few years. The first ever National Drone Racing Champions took place only last summer, but the event was wrought with technical difficulties preventing some participants from even getting off the ground. Problems are expected in a sports’ infancy, and there is a push to address technical problems, provide structure, and ultimately make drone racing an entertaining and exciting spectacle for audiences.
Enter the Drone Racing League (DRL). The league had their preseason race in the summer of 2015 at the “Gates of Hell,” an abandoned New York power plant, and kicked off the first race of the regular season in February in the NFL Miami Dolphins’ stadium, aptly titled “Miami Lights.” The DRL is hoping to take drone racing to the next level and become the sport’s top name. They certainly have the financial backers to make a radical change in FPV drone racing, with investments from big names like Miami Dolphins’ owner Stephen Ross, Matt Bellamy of the British rock band Muse, and CAA Ventures.
We’ve introduced you to the DRL, now let’s take a look at how a typical race goes.
DRL races are held in closed-doors locations, pumped up with the dramatic flair of dazzling neon lights, dry ice fog, and props fit for a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The courses are three-dimensional with plenty of hallways, tunnels, and hair-pin for the racers to maneuver through. The complexity of DRL courses is achieved through their robust radio communications network, built from scratch to allow every part of the course to be used to its fullest potential. The objective is for a racer to fly through neon-lined gates and checkpoints as they progress through the course. A missed checkpoint means disqualification.
A DRL race has three parts for racers to progress through: qualifying races, semifinals, and finals. Each stage has multiple heats in which a racer’s best time is used, so everyone has a fair shot post a competitive time from multiple runs. Points are awarded at events based on checkpoints and finishing times, with the season winner coming out on top in the end with the most total points.
To further ensure a level playing field, the DRL has also addressed individual drone performance. The league provides their own FPV racing drones to contenders, constructed by DRL in-house engineers. Racing with league drones standardizes performance across the board to make the best pilot wins, not the best machine. Using DRL drones also takes pressure off of crashing; they’ll still be disqualified, but contestants can race harder knowing it won’t be their own cherished investment smashing into a wall and splintering into a million pieces.
One of the most important issues the DRL has addressed is how audiences watch the race. Spectators can follow the drones by each of their colorful neon lights (each racer has their own color) and can watch a broadcast from a Skycam following the drones’ movement. However, the aerial camera can’t capture the best action happening within the course’s many twisting turns and the live FPV video streaming in the racers’ goggles is too poor of quality to be appealing to an audience. The DRL has taken a novel approach to making drone racing viable as a spectator sport, foregoing live FPV video streaming entirely and bringing the action to the audience after the race.
The racers are still fed the usual video by standard-definition cameras on their racing drones, but a high-definition camera on the front of the drone also records the entire race. The actual race is finished in under a minute, so the audience doesn’t have to wait long for a high-definition FPV package to be edited together, combined with dub-step music and thrown onto the big screen for enjoyment. The high-definition recordings of the races are also uploaded to the internet, promoting the DRL’s mission and drone racing as a sport to an audience of millions and allowing the viewer to experience the same excitement feeding into the racers’ goggles.
The DRL is currently heading into their third race of the season, their second race having taken place in March in an abandoned indoor Los Angeles shopping mall, dubbed “L.A.Pocalypse.” Both the preseason race (Gates of Hell) and first race (Miami Lights) are available for streaming on the league’s website, but you’ll have to wait for the high-definition video of L.A.Pocalypse to be posted.
If you’re interested breaking into the racing drone game and joining the other pioneers, you’re probably not going to be carving through a DRL course any time soon. That doesn’t mean you can’t start somewhere though, whether it’s a formal meeting of racers, racing with a few friends, or freestyling on your own. However you choose to race, you’re going to need one of the above drones. Many racing enthusiasts build their own drones so they can make their own modifications, but there are plenty of racing drones you can buy that are ready, or almost ready, to fly right out of the box. Now get racing!