SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Imagine a scene out of Star Wars: futuristic one-man space ships racing at top speed, indoors, outdoors, doing death-defying maneuvers, crashing mid-air — exploding into each other, into the ground. Now, replace the space ships with hyper-speed drones and you’ve just barely captured the thrill and exhilaration of ‘First Person View’ Drone Racing.
And you can count on the Drone Racing League to put this new sport on everyone’s radar.
(Video Courtesy DRL – YouTube)
It’s DRL’s 2016 season. The website describes it as “pod racing from Star Wars… the first sport of the 21st century.” There will be six races around the world, and the pilots with the most points will qualify for the World Championship.
FPV drone racing is a lot like the Indy 500, but with high-tech racing drones instead of cars. Races last only a few minutes. Custom designed, carbon fiber frames and battery-powered, these drones are made for speed — racing up to 80 m.p.h.– transmitting real-time video to the pilots.
The race courses run the gamut — through abandoned buildings, landmarks, even the Miami Dolphins football stadium — whizzing through the seats, down the aisles, up into the hallways and around tight corners — no prob.
The pilots race the video-rigged drones via remote control, wearing goggles that put them in the cockpit. Hence, the phrase ‘first person view,’ or FPV.
“It’s unreal,” says DRL pilot Travis McIntyre. The 29-year-old is ranked in the top 10.
Hand-eye coordination is key with FPV racing drones McIntyre explains, and lot of the best pilots come from the gaming world because the muscle memory with the drone controller is similar.
But the aerial tricks and maneuvers are perhaps the most amazing part of drone racing. That’s McIntyre’s forte, catapulting him onto the DRL’s leader board. Acrobatics are second nature to him. He started out as a ‘boarder,’ doing ‘rolls, ‘flips,’ and ‘combos’ on the sidewalks of his native Santa Rosa.
“It’s really an extension of skateboarding in my eyes,” he says. “When I started flying, I started doing tricks and acrobatic stuff. Being a boarder made me better at flying in tight spots.”
Watching the video relay of McIntyre making a dive into a tight corridor will hit you right in pit of your stomach. What’s it like for him?
“It’s like looking at a big TV, but the image is right in front of your eyes,” he says. “You can definitely get nauseous, but I’m more worried about losing control and crashing than getting sick.”
DRL pilots crash and burn just like race car drivers. Repairs happen on the spot. Each pilot carries an arsenal of replacement parts.
“You crash a lot,” says McIntyre. “But these drones are made to be repaired.”
Racing drones run the gamut. McIntyre has seen drones worth as much as $20,000.
“The ones we are racing in the DRL are worth $300 to $500 apiece.”
Which brings us to money. The DRL is a multi-million dollar league, according to the website. McIntyre says sponsors supply equipment, but he hasn’t made enough money to quit his day job loading trucks for Macy’s. He once considered going after a degree in philosophy. Now he just wants to race full-time.
A job flying drones isn’t out of the question. After all, drones are used these days for everything from package deliveries to reconnaissance.
McIntyre says he personally wouldn’t use his drones to spy on anyone. “They’re not sneaky,” he laughs. “They’re loud… people would definitely know they’re being watched.”
He says he’s just taking it a day at a time. He started out as just flying and putting his videos on YouTube. Then, the DRL reached out to him, so now he’s a race pilot.
(Video: Courtesy RotorSports/McIntyre)
Ranking, money and trophies aside, McIntyre and his fellow race pilots are just into flying any time, any place, every chance they get, just for the sheer love of the sport.
“It definitely starts out feeling the freedom of moving through 3-dimensional space, but I still want to fly someplace where I haven’t seen (to get) that perspective from the sky.”
So what’s McIntyre’s dream race course?
“My dream track would definitely be in a city, up and over skyscrapers and under bridges.”
Heads up! Could that be the DRL race pilots buzzing over San Francisco right now?
CBSSF.com writer, producer Jan Mabry is also executive producer and host of The Bronze Report. She lives in Northern California. Follow her on Twitter @janmabr.