It’s like a combination between a first-person video game and NASCAR, all lit in neon. Drone pilots donned virtual reality helmets to drive real drones through an empty stadium in the first race of the Drone Racing League.
On Monday, the burgeoning organization’s first race took off at Sun Life Stadium in Miami with drones flying along a course encompassing the field, the concourse and the spiraling ramps.
The organization hopes to bring drone racing out of backyards (where it isn’t always legal) and onto television screens.
The drones are small, about a foot long, and equipped with neon lights to make them easy to follow (and to match the cyberpunk look of the empty stadium and its neon gates). The DRL Racer 2 quadcopters are standardized: built of carbon fiber designed to take hits, the most popular model is 250 millimeters (9 inches) long and equipped with a front-mounted camera and four rotors in an H-shape. Larger X-shaped aerial photography drones are placed around the course to capture the action.
In order to capture television-quality video of the races, HD cameras can be mounted on the drones’ frames. Hundreds of LED lights are used to identify the drones and pilots by color.
Inside the frame is Racer1, a flight controller that uses open source Cleanflight software. A single power distribution board holds all of the necessary components, and a Rotorgeek 20A electronic speed controller and Cobra 2300kv motors create 3.3 kilograms of thrust.
The winner is determined via a points system. Pilots receive 50 points each for passing two checkpoints and finishing the race, and they receive 10 points for every second they finish under a two-minute time limit.
The racing circuit will continue with a second event in Los Angeles in March and a third later this year.
Want to test your reflexes against the professional pilots? A simulator available for download here replicates the course used in Miami.