The crowd at East Grinstead makes for an odd sight — most of them are wearing plastic goggles with long antennas sticking up, apparently ignoring their surroundings and staring out into empty space. Despite this, they react like a crowd at a football match, letting out oohs and aahs in unison, responding to some unseen action. Suddenly, a small drone skitters out of the trees on their right, crashing through the brushes before landing in a spray of dirt and leaves. There’s a cheer from the begoggled watchers and a small round of applause.
This is the world of first-person drone racing, an activity that currently occupies the ill-defined ground between dedicated pastime and fledgling sport. As drones become an increasingly mainstream phenomenon, racing leagues have popped up around the world. Anyone who takes it seriously — pilot or spectator — doesn’t watch their craft from a distance, but instead uses mounted cameras and special video goggles to see the world from their drone’s perspective, also known as first-person racing or FPV.
As far as drone racetracks go, the 100-meter-long course at East Grinstead is decidedly rural. Instead of a warehouse or a parking lot, the FPV League — one of the UK’s fledgling drone racing organizations — has decided to plot a circuit through a strip of woodland pitched on a steep hillside. The course is too narrow for the drones to race abreast, so instead, they’re competing individually in time trials. Each pilot pays a £10 ($15) buy-in and gets four goes ’round the track, with the winner taking home the pot. Just a few hundred meters away there are fields and open skies, but here the course is almost lost among the trees, with sharp turns, steep inclines, and even a miniature ravine all designed to test a pilot’s fine rotor skills.
“We’ve had a quarter of the people complete the course so far,” says Thomas Greer, a 25-year-old network engineer from Glasgow who runs the FPV League. “Which is more than I expected.” He says that although a few of the participants in the race — the first to be thrown by the newly formed FPV League — are professional pilots who do commercial filming work by drone, they still struggle with this sort of precision racing. “You need to be good with spatial awareness and know exactly how wide your quad is. There’s no point in thinking, ‘Yeah, I can get through that gap’ and forgetting about the propellers.”
Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com