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Drone racing: Everything you need to know

Drone racing: Image shows hands holding drone controller
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Welcome to our guide to everything there is to know about the fast-growing competitive sport of drone racing. From where it began, what it is, the best drones (opens in new tab) to buy, the leagues and competitions, and how you can get started yourself, we’ve collated all the information to take you to the next level of drone flying. And, if you just fancy watching it, we’ve got some information on that too. 

In 2006, the FAA officially issued the first ever commercial drone permit and over the years, flying recreational drones has become increasingly popular. Flying drones can be an enjoyable hobby, part of a lucrative business, and can even assist in day-to-day work, but there has also been a rise over the years in racing them for sport. And sometimes this sport can lead to cash prizes, brand deals, and accolades in the drone racing space. 

While all this is true, the sport is still growing and it still remains fairly underground but there have been some huge leaps forward which we’ll explore below. So, here we go, everything we know about drone racing and you should know about drone racing.

What is drone racing?

Drone racing: image shows person piloting FPV drone

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Drone racing turns flying drones into a competitive sport. Drone operators wear a head-mounted display such as goggles that connect directly to a camera on board the drone they are flying. This camera transmits a livestream feed from the drone to the headset meaning the pilot can navigate from the drone’s eye view. 

These types of drones are called FPV drones (opens in new tab), as in first-person view, due to the fact that the drone operator sees only what the drone sees. They become one with the drone and as such they fly the drone as if they’re on board it. 

The sport of drone racing is judged by how fast pilots can navigate through a course of obstacles. Fastest wins. In big events, the livestreams from the drones are broadcast onto screens around the course (and sometimes around the world) for spectators to watch and enjoy. 

Where did it all begin?

Drone racing has been around since 2011 when supposedly a group of amateur drone pilots got together in Karlsruhe, Germany to take part in some semi-organised races. From there, it’s transformed into a multi-competition sporting event with many leagues running their own courses with prizes to be won, which we’ll talk more about later.

What are the typical courses and obstacles?

Using quadcopters, drone racers navigate round three-dimensional courses. Different drone racing organizations have different types of obstacles that racers have to navigate. Competitions are held in stadiums across the world with obstacles such as gates, ladders, hurdles in all ranges of elevations and difficulties. 

Of late though, there has been a rise in esports drone racing, meaning pilots navigate around virtual courses. For example, the Drone Racing League World Championship includes tracks such as the Biosphere SIM, Campground SIM, US Air Force Boneyard SIM, and Allianz Riviera SIM, all virtual maps created in a true-to-life drone racing simulator. 

What speed do these drone races get up to?

According to the FAA, the legal and acceptable racing drone speed limit is 100mph. But they can go faster… if you’re a pro. Some pilots have been known to reach speeds of up to 120mph and the world record actually stands at 179mph. But, of course, this is not advised by the FAA. 

What sort of drones are used in drone racing?

DJI FPV

(Image credit: DJI FPV)

As mentioned previously, FPV drones (opens in new tab) are the certified drones to use in drone racing. There’s a variety of drones to choose from. You might decide to build and configure your drone to specification yourself or you might buy one of the many ready-to-fly drones already on the market. For drone racing, you’ll need a set up focused on speed, agility, and performance. 

DJI FPV
The DJI FPV drone is a frontrunner in the FPV drone space boasting an immersive, intuitive, ready-to-fly system with a multitude of accessories —  including the DJI Motion Controller, which allows you to maneuver your drone with natural hand movements, and the DJI FPV Goggles V2, geared towards low latency, high definition, and long distance transmission.

Parrot Anafi FPV
The Parrot Anafi FPV is another great competitor in the drone racing space. For around $749, depending on the reseller, you can purchase the Parrot Anafi FPV kit which comes with the quadcopter, a pair of cockpit glasses, a SkyController, and other accessories.

EMAX Tiny Hawk II
And then there’s the budget-friendly, beginner option: the EMAX Tiny Hawk II. If you’re looking to get started in drone racing, you might think about the EMAX Tiny Hawk II as an option which is beginner-friendly, micro-sized, and built for fun.

How can I get started with drone racing?

FPV drone racing goggles

(Image credit: Getty Images)

It’s important to first know the regulations around drones in general before you operate a drone of any form. For this, we’ve got a drone regulations guide (opens in new tab) detailing everything you need to know. 

Once you’re clued up, you’ll want to buy a beginner quadcopter to try out your skills. If you’re already well-versed in this part, it might be time for you to think about what kind of racer you want to be. 

You can try out some virtual drone racing sims such as the DRL SIM (opens in new tab) from the Drone Racing League, a true-to-life drone racing simulator available on PlayStation, Xbox, Steam, and Epic Games.

And then, when you’re ready to take to the skies, you want to make sure your drone is fully kitted out and up to spec for drone racing according to the class specifications of any races you want to take part in. For example, the MultiGP has different specs for their Tiny Whoop, Micro, or 3S classes.

In terms of leagues, the global leader in drone racing competitions is the Drone Racing League (opens in new tab) with high-speed racing across a variety of incredible courses. Other FPV organizations include MultiGP (opens in new tab), a global drone racing league with over 14,000 members, and the International Drone Racing Association (opens in new tab), responsible for sanctioning and governing drone racing events across the world. There are many others running competitions locally and internationally such as The World Games 2022 in Birmingham, Alabama. 

Leagues like the DRL have their own YouTube channel, boasting almost 130k subscribers, where you can watch live streams and re-watch old races. In a huge move for drone racing, the DRL also struck up a million dollar deal with Sky to bring their live streams to the Sky Sports Mix channel. Be sure to check out any competition sites and social media channels for live and archive drone races. 

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Grace is a freelancer who started writing for Space.com since 2021. She's a huge fan of movies, TV, and gaming, and if she's not clutching her Xbox controller or scanning the streaming platforms for the next must-watch shows, you'll find her spending copious amounts of time writing about them on her laptop. Specialties include RPG, FPS, and action-adventure games as well as 80s sci-fi movies and book adaptations.