This past July, Steele Davis walked onto Sacramento’s Bonney Field and prepared to steer a drone around a flag-marked track. First he donned a pair of goggles. Then he launched his H-shaped quadcopter and sent it into his signature trick, an inverted yaw spin.
“You flip upside down and then rotate,” says Davis, a 25-year-old from Atlanta. “So you’re inverted, but you’re being forced toward the ground because the props are still spinning.”
Davis is one of the pioneers in the sport of first-person-view drone racing. Pilots competing in the races wear goggles that give them a drone’s-eye aerial view, streamed from cameras on their machines. The effect is as if they had been miniaturized and placed in tiny drone cockpits.
The sport began as casual races among friends. French model-aircraft association Airgonay recorded one of these and posted the video on YouTube a little over a year ago. The footage of drones racing through a forest racked up more than 2 million views. As more FPV drone videos hit the Web, the burgeoning sport grew, culminating in the first large-scale, organized drone-racing competition: the U.S. National Drone Racing Championships.
Over two days this past summer, 120 FPV pilots from around the world descended on the California State Fair to compete for the fastest five-lap time—and more than $25,000 in prizes. Davis and eight other pilots also participated in a special freestyle heat. In this category, judges score competitors based on the intricacy and inventiveness of their maneuvers. Davis took second behind Australian Chad Nowak.
“Everybody was racing in different countries, but this was the first official international one that put it on the map,” says Scot Refsland, CEO of RotorSports, the California company that organized the U.S. championships. Since then, national competitions have been staged in Germany, the U.K., and Canada. RotorSports is also planning a world championship in Hawaii this October, with more than 300 pilots from at least 35 countries and $200,000 in prize money.
“With the drone nationals, the drone world championships, and little events everywhere popping up, it’s becoming a very competitive sport,” says Swiss pilot Raphael Pirker, known as “Trappy” for his aerial tricks. “There’s an opportunity for people to turn a hobby into a business and fly professionally.”
This article was originally published in the January/February 2016 issue of Popular Science, under the title “Drone Racing Takes Off.”