18 Jul 2018

Drone Racing: The Kids Are Coming

Drone racing is a fast-growing new FAI discipline that has won thousands of young fans in recent years. The attraction is obvious: drone racing looks futuristic, a cross between online gaming and high-speed racing. Who wouldn't love to have a go?

What’s more, young people are good at it – often better than their older drone-racing colleagues. At the China Drone Racing Open in Shenzhen in March, all the spots on the main podium were occupied by youngsters, and the winner was 11-years-old.

A test event for the first FAI World Drone Racing Championship in November this year, the China Drone Racing Open was held in the city of Shenzhen.

Team Vector, a young drone racing team of nine pilots had travelled there from South Korea to compete. Surrounded by his team mates, Sungju Park, 15, explained why he thinks he and his friends are so good. "I think we practise a lot," he said. 

"Only practise is the way for the good pilot. I practise every day. When I go to school I practise one or two hours, but Sunday or Saturday I practise all day. We fly drones all the time!"

What does he like about drone racing? "If I race fast, and I make the gates, then I feel so excited. I like that. I feel like I'm flying, like I am the airplane."

FAI Drone Racing Judge David Roberts has seen that sort of passion in young people literally hundreds of times. And there is more to it than the simple buzz of adrenalin-fuelled speed.

"Yes, I believe the reason young pilots are so good is probably because they started out playing video games, and they have really rapid reactions. They are used to that quick thinking, and they have time to practice."

However, he added, there are multiple stages to learning to race drones well, and it's not simply a 3D computer game. "When a student first sees a quad racing they are intrigued, like everybody," he said.

"When they have a chance to put on the goggles and fly, they get that understanding, that feeling of 'Now I'm Superman, flying through the air'. It's a very exhilarating, exciting experience. So they are drawn in."

But, he warned, "They are going to be really excited. And then they are going to crash. 

"They thought they had just found the answer to everything that makes them happy in life, but they crashed! So then they are forced to become a science, technology and math student. They need to understand what happened to cause them to crash, so they can fix it.

"They have to learn to build the quad, to program the quad, to finesse it and make it super-efficient. When that student pilot takes off and it flips and drops from the sky, they go from happy to sad. Then they fix it and life is good again."

It is this mix of engineering, model-building, science, programming, gaming and the physics of flight that makes drone-racing so engaging for youngsters. It also, argued David, will make them a better all-round student.

"That student will be a better student, because of the nature of what happens with the quad. You have to get an A in this class, in several categories, to make that thing fly. You must or it won't fly."

He added: "Flying quads is a lot of fun, but there is a lot of discipline behind it."

There are also, of course, parents and other adult supporters. David said: "A good thing that makes a good young pilot is a good support team, especially the parents. Helping them into the sport, and helping them understand technically what is happening."

In most case the parents also fund the hobby. 

Sungju Park from South Korea knows this is true. "If the parents aren't here, then we are not here," he said. "Parents are the best supporters."

Photo credit: FAI/Marcus King