Drone racing: How an underground hobby took flight to become a competitive sport

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If you’ve ever dreamt of flying through the air, dodging obstacles, whizzing around corners and turning upside down, drone racing might be the sport for you — especially if you like the idea of doing all this with your feet firmly on the ground.

In first-person view (FPV) drone racing, the pilot sees through their goggles exactly what the drone sees and aims to steer themselves through a set course as quickly as possible.

“Drone racing is the same as racing cars, but in the air and through an obstacle course and the first one around the track wins,” Chad Nowak, one of the Brisbane-based pioneers of the sport in Australia, said.

The appeal can come down to a love of gadgets or a need for speed, but for another Brisbane racing veteran, Mark Cocquio, it is the freedom of taking flight.

“I just like being able to fly, being able to get in a machine and do things that you couldn’t do even if you were in an aircraft,” he said.

“You just pick it up and flip it over if you crash, and you get to be a bird again for five minutes.”

Drone racing’s momentum is growing. Last year saw the inaugural Australian Drone Nationals, organised by Brisbane racer Tighe Brown.

International competitions are picking up steam and Australians have been well represented at the top of the podium, with Nowak and Melbourne teenager Thomas Bitmatta both taking out titles.

The growth of the sport is partly down to the rapid development of drone technology.

“It was only when the little ones came along — they’re more durable, you can smash them around and they don’t break — that people thought, ‘oh yeah, we can race these’,” Cocquio said.

From carparks at night to legitimacy

Cocquio said just a few years ago, drone racing was something that only happened underground.

“That was an underground-carparks-at-night sort of thing,” he said.

“Now it’s actually a legitimate sport: we have insurance cover, it’s sanctioned by the governing body.”

Cocquio and Nowak said the negative connotations attached to drones had largely dissipated.

“People go, ‘Oh wow, that’s cool. I never knew they could do that’ … they’re a lot smaller so they come across as less threatening,” Cocquio said.

“You put the goggles on someone who hasn’t been for a flight before … and you’ve instantly got a friend.”

Endurance racing and pitstops

Drone racing is beginning to find a television audience overseas, with channels including CBS, ESPN and Sky Sports and Fox Sports Asia either already broadcasting the sport or planning to.

But both Nowak and Cocquio admitted that as far as being a spectator sport, it had some way to go.

“You’ve got this track that you’re watching from line-of-sight and you’ve got all these buzzing little drones going around and you don’t know who’s winning, who’s losing,” Nowak said.

Cocquio said the sport needed to experiment with different formats, saying there was potential for more endurance-based events.

“The format for the racing — two-to-three minute races where things just happen super hectically for one battery and then there’s a winner — it has been around for a while, but isn’t necessarily the most accessible,” he said.

“There are plenty of options, [like] endurance racing. I’d like to see pitstops.”


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