Professional Drone Racing, Explained By The Experts

Professional drone racing is a sport in its infancy. But that’s exciting — it’s like F1 without the rules. Companies like Red Bull are throwing cash at flashy championships on crazy tracks. We asked a pro racer exactly how to get into the sport and what it’s like.

FPV drone racing tracks are hardcore, with tight twists and turns and plenty of obstacles that require massive precision to navigate. The track for DR.ONE 2017 — which you can see in the video above or further down below — looks particularly manic. The event happens at the end of this month in Spielberg, Austria — and it’s for the title, too.

18 pilots from around the world, including Australia, will take part. There’ll be heats for qualifying using pilots’ fastest laps for seeding, so similarly skilled pilots will compete against an equal playing field. It also allows for some leeway with crashes and damaged drones — a technical failure on day one doesn’t sabotage a quality racer if they’re able to catch up.

We got in touch with Aussie pro drone racer Ross Kerker to get the low-down on the sport, to understand how pro-level events actually work, and ask how he thinks they might develop in the future.

How did you get into drone racing? How specialised/different is professional-level drone racing versus recreational or amateur-level events?

I was already flying 3D model helicopters, when a fellow heli pilot brought along this new mini quadcopter with FPV (first person view) and he gave me a try — from the first launch I was hooked and immediately saw the racing potential, over the next few years it developed greatly to where we are now.

Flying with mates in a paddock is great fun and pretty easy to do and everyone is a winner, local race meets step it up with structured races and heats where at the end of the day there is a winner.

Stepping right up to the pro-level events is completely different again — there is a lot more pressure to perform, usually a lot more eyes watching and of course more prize money on the line. They also tend to introduce more rules and stipulations to the racing which can be interesting like HD cameras and LEDs.

With an open blueprint for the drone (apart from a few guidelines), how can you make sure the drone you build to race is competitive against other teams?

It’s mostly about being to optimise your drone for the type of racing that is going to occur, you want to have just the right amount of flight time to complete a race — no point carrying extra battery weight if it won’t be used.

You want to drone to be as light as possible to complete the task, as generally the lighter it is, the better it accelerate and handle.

Unfortunately light weight usually comes at the cost of durability, so running a light rig, means you may need many rigs, or be good at fast repairs.

You also want to be using the best equipment available, there is no room for mechanical error at the big events, so reliability is also important.

Where do you think the drone racing scene will go as it grows? Do you see it becoming a huge sport or will it stay relatively niche?

Its growing so fast, it’s difficult to see the where it will end. In two years it’s gone from, ‘these things are possible’ to ‘professional leagues with six-figure prizes’.

There’s a common thought that it will be as big as F1 with multi-million dollar teams racing in front of millions of spectators, in person and live-streamed on the Internet and TV.

Image: Red Bull

Is it possible to build a drone too hard core or too stripped-out to be competitive? With not enough battery for a full race or lightweight components that aren’t powerful enough?

Yes, there is always a bottleneck in the system somewhere, some drones can be built that require so much power, that no battery exists to feed it.

So most builds are always compromising between several factors. I have a couple simple rules that I generally follow — never sacrifice weight for thrust, and it must be able to survive a light crash like a tumble in the grass.

There is a category known as ‘hyper-lights’ — these are drones where many sacrifices are made to achieve as light a drone as possible, the major sacrifice made is in durability, which means any minor mistake is race over as something will have broken.

I have personally flown drones that are so light, they can break themselves under normal flight conditions. So most pilots need to balance all the aspect of the drone for a great complete package.

As a broad question, do you think those rules and regs help or hinder the competition? Is it more fun to have an ‘open class’ where any drone might win, or a blueprinted series where it’s up to the pilot?

It’s a double edged sword, bring in strict rules so the racing is closer and pilot skill is the determining factor, or fully open where the best drone (often with the most money spent) can give an advantage.

The open class really pushes innovation of the industry and gives everyone something to talk about, it also assists the industry to generate revenue as the punters always want the latest and greatest parts to hopefully give them the advantage.

At the end of the day, pilot skill is 90 per cent of what determines who will win, even in the open categories. At the pointy end of the skill levels, it often comes down to has the best luck on the day — and there are many things that can go wrong in racing, so luck is also important.