Drone racing takes off as technology becomes more affordable

Love them or loathe them, drones are in full flight these days. Aerial photography enthusiasts have embraced them, providing a bird’s eye view of everything from the Wild Atlantic Way to weddings.

An influx of cheaper toys has seen them become a must-have for younger pilots. And last week, Pony Express Couriers said it had completed Ireland’s first authorised drone delivery, using a drone to drop emergency supplies to a boat off the Dublin shoreline.

The industry has exploded over the past couple of years. Instead of having to build devices by hand, ready-to-go drones for all purposes are now available to buy off the shelf.

No one has been better positioned to see that than Damien Doyle, managing director of the Copter Shop in Dublin. While most of us are trying to get to grips with toys or camera-bearing drones, he has seen people explore a whole other side of things: drone racing.

Doyle says the interest in drone racing has increased significantly in the past couple of years as the devices have become more and more popular.

“The drone-racing industry in Ireland is small but certainly growing. Everyone is starting to get into it,” he said. “I remember when it first started off and there were literally five or six people flying; now there are about 200.”

The sport has been getting increasing coverage in recent years. Sky Sports shows the Drone Racing League on its Sky Sports Mix channel and has invested $1 million (€940,000) in the sport. ESPN also shows the league, dragging the sport into the mainstream.

While the racing league is showcasing the top pilots in the world, there are plenty of opportunities for budding drone racers to make their mark here. Ireland now has its own Drone Racing Nationals, which pits the best racers in the country against each other. The top six pilots in the championship race qualified to go to the ERSA European Cup in Ibiza.

If you think that commanding a drone from DJI or other commercial drone manufacturer could prepare you for drone racing, you’d be wrong. Drone racing is a very different thing, especially when it comes to so-called first person view (FPV).

This is a particular type of flying, where pilots use cameras to fly drones. It’s almost like sitting in the cockpit; even more so if the pilots are using goggles instead of FPV monitors. It has been compared to playing real-life video games, especially at the higher competitive levels.

While many off-the-shelf drones have GPS and other technology built in to minimise the risk of crashing, drone racing removes that safety net.

“They are skilled pilots in what they do,” says Doyle. Crashes happen, however, and it can add up for those involved in the sport: replacing hulls, rotors and other parts are not cheap.

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