The spectacular world of drone racing is heating up. It all began as an amateur sport in Australia in late 2014, before their Kiwi neighbors coined the term “Rotorcross,” and suddenly first-person-view racing leagues began springing up around the world. This proliferation led to the 2015 US National Drone Racing Championships in Sacramento, the 2016 World Drone Prix in Dubai, and now, this weekend, Governors Island in NYC will be hosting the second annual National Drone Racing Championships.
The event is sanctioned by the Drone Sports Association and presented by GoPro, with exclusive coverage on ESPN. Last year’s championships took place on a Sacramento soccer field, whereas this year’s games race a course with epic views of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Needless to say, it’s quite the venue upgrade.
The venue is not the only upgrade at this year’s nationals. In addition to GoPro and ESPN, big-data giant EMC, insurance behemoth AIG, and accounting firm Ernst & Young are major sponsors of the event. This sport is obviously turning heads and catching eyes at large corporations across major industries.
If you’re unfamiliar with drone racing, you’re not alone. This is one of the newest and fastest growing e-sports, with a cadre of professional pilots on the verge of taking their sport to the next level. If you’re into sites like Twitch, E-League or Machinima, you’ll probably be all about this high-flying, zippy, high-tech action sport. Think of it as MLG meets an airborne NASCAR.
In the 2016 iteration, there will be four classes of race: Drone, Team, Wing, and Freestyle. Drone is the classic quadcopter outfitted for racing operated by a single pilot and raced in heats of eight. Top times advance until the final round determines the champion. The Team class is comprised of a pilot, co-pilot, tech, co-tech, and team manager. These races are longer and require pit stops to swap out batteries. The Wing class is a single “pusher” prop aircraft resembling a small stealth bomber. It’s louder and faster, and this is the first time it’s being raced on the DSA circuit. And Freestyle is just like it sounds — a judged event involving pilots hot-dogging, performing barrel rolls and flips around a large installation built by event-technology innovator and Coachella mainstay Stereo.bot.
Class photo at the 2015 National Championships in Sacramento
For a taste of some freestyle hot-doggery, check out this video from the 2015 Championships:
Friday will be a meet-and-greet with the pilots, press interviews, and autograph signings. Saturday will be the qualifying rounds for each class, and Sunday the finals. All of the pilots participating in the finals will have already qualified, as the DSA Chairman Scot Refsland says, “You can’t pay to fly. You gotta qualify.” Speaking with regard to the sport’s rapid rise in popularity, Scot added, “To go from a first ever US national drone race to partnering with ESPN for international distribution in eight months is truly a sign of great things ahead.”
The pilot pit at a US Nationals qualifying round in Roswell, NM
Several drone racing leagues and competitions have emerged in recent years, including the World Drone Prix, which raced this past March in Dubai. A 15-year-old British boy won that event and collected $250,000. The Drone Prix was the world’s first truly global drone-racing event, drawing over 2,000 spectators to view 150 teams ying for a prize pool valued at $1 million USD.
The National Drone Racing Championships will be the first drone competition broadcast by ESPN, however. The Disney-owned sporting giant will also broadcast the 2016 World Racing Championships, scheduled for October 17-22 in Kualoa Ranch, HI. The top 5 finishers in each of the four categories at the National Drone Racing Championships will qualify to represent Team USA at the world championships in Hawaii.
For full details on the 2016 US National Drone Racing Championships visit the event’s official website and tune in this weekend on ESPN.