The California State Fair played host to an unconventional but increasingly popular type of sporting event last week. The first international drone racing contest invited budding pilots from all around the globe to battle it out for the inaugural US National Championship and a slice of US$25,000 in cash prizes.
The sport of drone racing is still largely unknown, but tight-knit communities of dedicated enthusiasts are popping up around the world with amateur leagues forming in France, England, the US and Australia. Pilots typically fly custom-built quadcopters through warehouses, empty shopping mall carparks or remote outdoor locations, some as fast as 100 mph (160 km/h).
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Sounds like fun, right? Well according to those behind the joysticks, what really gives drone racing its edge are the sets of first person view goggles used to tune into video stream coming from the aircraft's front-facing cameras. So rather than controlling the drone by eye, racers see only what the drones see as they zip through trees, pylons and other obstacles, creating a highly addictive sense of immersion.
But a hobby that was once limited to derelict buildings and clandestine meet ups is now becoming a legitimate sport. Australia's Chad Nowak was flown over to compete in the US courtesy of his sponsor, Immersion RC. When we spoke to him at a drone race in Melbourne last month, he had pretty modest expectations about how he would fare among the sport's elite. But now that the event has been and gone, he will return to his native land with not one but three titles to his name.
A total of 100 pilots took part across three separate events. An individual time trial, a team time trial and a freestyle stunt competition where pilots perform barrel rolls and other maneuvers to impress the judges. Nowak was able to negotiate the course's gates and obstacles more than two minutes ahead of his nearest rival in the individual time trial. He came out a winner in the team time trial as part of Team Immersion, and his exploits in the freestyle event saw him claim first prize there, too.
We are going to see different types of drone racing events as the sport moves through its formative stages, and whatever shape they take we're sure its newly crowned champion won't be too far from the action.
Source: US Drone NationalsView gallery - 5 images