Chris McAndrew

Mar 1st 2017

A Sporty Approach to Drone Racing


The first Drone Racing League (DRL) series was announced by ESPN last fall. Complete with crashes and tricked-out courses, the competitions are built to entertain fans. The events combine cutting-edge aerial vehicle technology with Hollywood-quality courses to deliver races packed with speed … and crashes.

Viewers are taken along for a ride thanks to onboard cameras that provide first-person views (FPV) that allow pilots the freedom to push the limits of the devices.

FPV is unique in that it provides a viewpoint that is otherwise unachievable. Racing drones can perform maneuvers that would render a human pilot unconscious and, thanks to their size, they are able to operate in places where manned vehicles simply cannot.

A Sporty Approach

Autonomous aerial systems have been around for a few decades but the launch of competitions is bound to drive further innovation. Sport and competition is what has driven vehicle innovation for more than a century, since the first automobile races of the late 1800s.

The DRL series is driven by strict regulations and requirements. This is not unlike the design specifications adhered to by aerospace companies. Each has unique operating environments and vehicles are packed with carbon-fiber bodies, efficient motor control systems and low-latency, high-precision control mechanisms.

The agility and precision control software it takes to get a drone through a series of checkpoints is an accessible display of technology. Measuring about 10 inches across and weighing in just under a pound, an official DRL vehicle can reach speeds of up to 120 mph.

Speed and Agility Required

The vehicles you see on ESPN are designed for, as the DRL puts it, “speed, agility, and durability.” Airing drone racing makes it accessible to the masses but aerospace companies have been doing that for years, and they take durability and range seriously.

Take the U.S. Navy’s MQ-8C Fire Scout. The Northrop Grumman-designed Fire Scout is nearly 50 times larger (41.4 feet) and 6,000 times heavier than its model counterpart, but is also able to carry a 500-pound payload and hit top speeds of more than 150 mph.

Northrop Grumman also took on a monumental challenge of engineering, precision and control while becoming the first to land and launch an autonomous aerial system from an aircraft carrier, with the U.S. Navy’s X-47B UCAS-D in 2013.

In 2016, DARPA announced Northrop Grumman as the winner of a nearly $100-million contract to develop a new form of autonomous aerial system. Most of that development is still top secret, but it’ll make drone racing devices look like the toys that they are.

Seeing Is Believing

We may not all be fighter pilots, but getting a ride in the cockpit is still the best way to experience what is happening in the industry. Enthusiasts in the San Diego area, a hotbed of aviation activity, were treated to a fierce, team-based competition of autonomous aerial systems working in concert at the Northrop Grumman-hosted Quad Cup in August.

Everyone who wants to see autonomous aerial systems continue development should be pushing to have more people experience that thrill. One of the leading makers of FPV drones, Lumenier, is quoted as saying their main marketing channel is to sponsor pilots in drone racing events.

The FAA does not regularly release data on how many operators there are out there, but as of May 2016, there were reports of more than 500,000 registered drones in the United States. Add in the recent holiday season and that number will soon approach a million.

What’s next for drone racing? As the commercial and military markets leap forward with innovation, the push towards truly trusted cognitive autonomy may result in flying robots that make their own decisions, untethered by the limits of the joystick.