A day at the drone races
It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Louisville, Kentucky. The local park was lively with dog walkers, joggers and a small fleet of something less expected — drone pilots.
Drones executed turns and zipped through gates and around trees.
About six drone enthusiasts had gathered at the park to experience the adrenaline rush of speeding through the air around obstacles, all from the seated safety of a picnic table bench.
“I wanted to go fast,” said pilot Francis Garthwaite. Drones in the races regularly zoom around at upwards of 60 miles per hour. That rush is one of several reasons he heads out to fly three or four times a week.
Drone racing is starting to take off. Just last week, pilots from around the world gathered in Hawaii at the 2016 World Drone Racing Championships. The competition offered about $100,000 in cash and prizes.
In separate development, Drone Racing League, started in 2015 by a former Tough Mudder executive, last month snagged a deal with ESPN and ESPN2 to broadcast this season’s races. DRL’s races are elaborate productions with all the lights, cameras and action expected from mainstream racing events. It hopes races will one day reach the level of something like NASCAR. DRL raised $8 million in fundingin January and another $1 million in September.
But in Louisville, a sunny afternoon in a park is well spent amid the buzz of racing drones. Frank Mattingly, this meetup’s organizer and the founder of Derby City Drone Racing, said drone enthusiasts make friends easily. Common ground, or air, accounts for a lot.
“If you drive down the road and see some guy flying a drone, you stop and say ‘hey,'” Garthwaite said.
The group, which originally came together via networking platform Meetup.com, filled several tables with drones, cables, controllers, FPV (first-person view) goggles and a stray Red Bull or two. They took turns flying their drones around, always sure to call out a warning when a jogger or even a dog got too close to the area.
They set up cones and a few gates, obstacles for the drones to fly through. When the race started, the drones rose off the ground while the pilots sat rigidly, staring straight ahead donning their goggles. The goggles let them see the drone’s perspective using a feed from an onboard camera, delivered via analog signal.
During the second race, one drone crashed and a smattering of drone bits went flying.
It’s not uncommon. Mattingly said they all crash at some point. Building, tuning and even repairing the little flying machines is part of the fun.