By Aaron Waldron
Drone racing has dominated global hobby-related headlines over the last couple of years. The concept is fresh and exciting, the technology has captivated whole new audiences, and the growing industry has burst into the mainstream with a deal to have marquee races broadcasted on ESPN’s online network from venues like NFL stadiums.
Basically, drone racing did everything RC car racing should’ve done over the last 30 years.
By using on-board cameras and FPV goggles, drone racing has sufficiently meshed the concept of virtual reality with real-world competition. The pilots aren’t actually inside the machines they’re racing, but it looks like it - to both the pilot as well as the spectators that view the feed. Using FPV goggles also eliminated the need for the pilots to have an unobstructed view of the entire course, making it possible to race through courses creatively integrated into existing buildings and landscapes.
Drone racing tracks are created by laying out gates and pylons through which the pilots must navigate. National championship-quality courses can be built in public areas, by hand, within a matter of hours, and torn down just as quickly - leaving no lasting damage to the site. It doesn’t require tens of thousands of dollars (and hundreds of hours of labor) invested by a business or club to maintain a racetrack - and pilots can practice almost anywhere.
Because drones race through the air, there’s generally no such thing as inconsistent track conditions. Sure, an outdoor course could be affected by wind, but there’s no track sweeping or watering, and no extreme track deterioration. Also, no tire wear!
Though there are many different organizations that promote drone racing, each of them place an emphasis on head-to-head competition - not racing against the clock. Finishing times are sometimes used to determine seeding into different groups, but pilots compete against one another more often than not. Even time trial competitions compare straight finishing times, not a convoluted qualifying points system with split ladder sub-finals. The format makes it easy for both pilots and spectators to understand.
Likewise, rules regarding drone racing equipment are extremely simple - basically outlining general dimensions and ensuring pilots are all using quadcopters with relatively similar gear. There are three different classes of drones that are raced, based on size, but most tend to stick to one - and that’s it.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard RC racers complain about how video games got so much more attention than RC racing - when RC racing was supposed to be “the real-life video game.” The problem is that the RC industry has never treated itself as a real-life video game. Instead, the world of RC racing has dug itself down miles of rabbit holes trying to protect its place as a miniature form of motor sport racing that’s (supposed to be) affordable for the average hobbyist. And to both ends, we’ve failed.
So what can we do?
- First of all, RC racing should cut any remaining ties to full-size motor sports - yes, that’s even coming from one of the last grumpy old-school apologists who has long argued for maintaining scale accuracy. Make the cars look as futuristic and space-shipy as possible. Pick 2-3 classes of vehicle and stick with them, rather than separating entries into 15 different categories. Simplify the rules to minimum and maximum dimensions and let the market determine the rest (which is what we’ve been doing anyway - rules be damned).
- Put cameras on the cars. Yes, that probably means the tracks will have to be toned down at first, and the cars will have to change. Trade in the pistol-grip radios for actual cockpits with pedals and a steering wheel. Give manufacturers the chance to be innovative again, rather than making small incremental changes and widely expanding their product lines with similar me-too products to milk money out of the racers and hobby shops.
- Stop trying to make dirt racing happen. It’s time to embrace the concept of being able to unfold a carpet track in a public place, rather than truck tens of thousands of dollars of specialized clay into a dark warehouse somewhere. Use pre-built obstacles like jumps and wall-rides that can easily be re-arranged into different courses. Illuminate lane markers and jump faces with LED lights. Assign LED colors, rather than tiny car numbers, so that spectators can easily determine which car is being controlled by which driver.
- Invest the time, money and resources into creating innovative, out-of-the-box racing events. Wipe all of the cookie-cutter trophy races off the calendar and work together to promote competitions that are actually exciting. And make sure people can watch - in person and online.
Drone racing got as big as it did, as quickly as it did, by embracing the technology and video game-like aspects that RC racing has been desperately trying to avoid for decades - and in doing so, it blew past us like we were standing still.