It’s thrilling traveling at 100 mph around a technical course, the excitement of drone racing is just getting started, an adventure any of us can enjoy. You may be thinking about taking your Phantom drone to the park to scoot around with your friends doing the same, which would be fun, but that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about small, tough, agile, high-speed machines with FPV cameras and goggles, going around highly technical, closed tracks at speeds that double or even triple and more the top speed of your Phantom drone.
There are many levels to drone racing, beginners can enjoy the sport with their local league, while the professionals are taking home million dollar prizes at world-class competitions. One thing remains true for all, you have to start somewhere, and if you are here, you are ready to learn what it takes to fly before you head out.
Already know your stuff? Here are the drones you’re looking for:
What do you need to race?
Before we dive into the exciting drones that you could be speeding off with, let’s take a brief look at the additional info, tools and accessories you’ll need to get going.
As always, in the United States, any drone over 0.55 lbs needs to be registered with the FAA before flight. That said, the FAA governs outdoor flight, you are free to fly indoors without registration. The same goes for one of the most important FAA rules for sUAS, line-of-sight. Most racing drones use FPV goggles, which, technically, takes your eyes off of the drone itself. Look into the rules on having a spotter if you are flying outside.
I say again, the you need to register your drone with the FAA before you fly outside!
Unofficially, representatives of the FAA have informed us that winning money from a drone race is considered being paid to fly. Officially, the FAA does not have rules on the books specific to drone racing. We have reached out to the FAA for confirmation, but if you are planning to participate in an outdoor race for which you can win money, we would like to recommend you consider getting your Part 107 drone license and treating the flight as a commercial operation. This is a developing topic, stay tuned for more info.
Finally, the FAA says your drone is limited to a top speed of 100 mph. It is very difficult to beat this speed on a technical course, but many of these racers are capable of topping 100 mph given the chance.
If you are flying for pay, or any other form of compensation, you must operate under a different set of rules and possess a commercial drone license. We call it the Part 107, it’s not too hard to get, but it will take some time to learn all the rules. We want to help you learn the rules and get your commercial license, check out our drone pilot training material.
Buy or build?
We are excited for the idea of walking through a racing drone build with you, one day, but for today we’ll simply be exploring ready-to-fly quadcopters, or close to. You should know that the top racers have invested into their equipment, and most have meticulously built their machines from the ground up.
If you want to make it to the big leagues, you’ll need to build your own drone. At the very least, you’ll need to make some careful adjustments to a purchased unit.
Your Parrot drone may have shipped with a set of VR goggles, designed to put the view from the drone camera right in front of your eyes, but please don’t take them to the race track. First Person View (FPV) is a fun way to fly, but at the sorts of speeds these racers go, there is no room for latency unless you like hitting the wall.
There is a name you will see time and again on best FPV goggle lists (we’re working on our own, stay tuned,) and on the heads of competitors in the leagues, Fat Shark. We are not deep enough into the scene to know just yet what the best goggles are, but we can tell you now that Fat Shark is only one player worth your consideration. Look out for goggles from Zeiss, HeadPlay and Skyzone, to name a few.
The basic idea, in case you are new to this, many of the courses in these races have out of sight sections. In these parts, a racer relies solely on their headgear to see what the drone sees and make it around the track. These are not augmented reality devices (not many of them, at least,) you are going into a full VR headset experience. As mentioned, at 100 mph, the video feed from drone camera back to your remote and headgear must be near instant, meaning you’re looking at some high-end electronics to be effective.
Bottom line, $250 will get you started, but $500 and up is where you’ll likely need to look to be competitive on the global stage.
Update: DJI Goggles Racing Edition
DJI took a huge step for drone racers, the new version of their VR headset, in combination with their OcuSync ready camera and transmitter, make the DJI Goggles Racing Edition a real option for getting around the track. DJI Says you can get down to just 50 ms latency with this setup, which is more than double the performance of the original Goggles and within range of high-end racing headsets out there. Get all the details of the new DJI Goggles Racing Edition and see how much they cost at the link below.
When flying a big camera drone the last thing you want to do is crash, and you can generally avoid incident with a few simple tactics. Racing drones are not ideal to crash either, but you must be ready to repair your drone, you are going to crash.
We all have a budget to work within, but if you are hoping to go pro, or to a serious race event of any sort, I have a few recommendations. First, head to the track with at least two of everything. This is not like flying in the grass of your backyard, there are metal poles, hard floors and more unforgiving obstacles. We preach avoiding incident, but in this case, it is near inevitable you’ll hit something.
Having two of every part, including the frame of your craft, ensures you can get back into the air at least once after a disastrous bump. Many racers have at least two ready-to-fly units with them – either as a spare or with a different configuration for different course types.
Next, batteries and propellers. Bring lots. Power is not always on hand at these events, be sure to show up with all the juice you’ll need to fly for the day. This goes for powering your remote and headgear as well. Propellers are pretty self explanatory, they are usually the first thing to break in a bump – often the only thing to break, thankfully – so have extra for quick repair and continued flight.
Further to simply having lots of propellers, consider different sizes and configurations. We won’t get into angle-of-attack and such today, but know that different widths, lengths and angles on the propellers will dramatically change your flight characteristics. I say this, also ignoring the idea of having two and three bladed propellers on hand. You probably want the typical two-blade propellers though, just bring lots.
You know what they say about being perfect? It takes practice, of course. If you are just getting into flying drones, I urge you to start with our cheap drones guide, including some cheap drones you can consider to get started. Simply put, buy a $30 toy, crash it, learn, get better, still crash, then step up to a faster unit.
There are also many emulators around that let you try before you fly, if you will. Hand-eye coordination is key, and a good remote is helpful. Pick a design that suites you, get out there and fly until you get good.
Most racing drones have no flight assistance!
If you’ve flown a Phantom drone, or another drone of that caliber, you are sure to have noticed that they do things like hover in place all on their own. You are unlikely to find these sorts of crutches on a racing drone, it is all you at the controls. Practice on those toy drones before you take a racer into the sky.
Update: If practice makes perfect, the Uvify OOri was made for perfection.
Announced at CES 2018, but not yet shipping to consumers, the Uvify OOri is a capable little drone that is meant to grow with you. It flies safe and stable at low speeds, safe for the living room, but then unleash the beast to get over 50 mph with this micro machine. We’ll have plenty more to say about this new mini drone once ours arrives in the mail. Stay tuned.
Leagues and insurance
Taking part in an organized event takes more than just showing up at the park to fly. You are going to need to join a league of some sort, and that league is likely going to require insurance. The standard in the United States is to find a MultiGP verified organization, which will require you to join and purchase insurance from the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA.) The local league may have fees and the AMA is $75 per year for most people.
Additionally, you can find more in-depth insurance coverage from other players. For example, the IDRA is more than just an international racing league, they offer international insurance as well. They’ll cover you around the globe with liability insurance for most any drone flight, not just racing. That said, you might opt for a service like Verifly, to pay by flight.
Remember, you can fly in the park without a league or insurance, but it’s probably smart to look into both, just in case.
Enough info, let’s fly!
That wraps up the important things to know before you head out to find a racing league in your area. You have much to do from this point, finding a league, meeting their requirements for entry, and getting out to an event to see things in action. Not to mention, we did not really talk about the drones themselves in this article. It’s easy for us to tell you to be ready to build, tweak and repair, these are things we’ll talk about, if only briefly, in later articles, but for now, make friends with your local hobby shop.
Of course, the thing you need now, a drone. Follow the links below to find our list of the best racing drones, and a few other lists of drones that might help you get started.
Have a lower budget than our full best list? No worries, we’ve also collected some of the best racing drones under $250 for you. Check it out.