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Inside the surprisingly high stakes world of drone racing

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Drones have begun to hover around us in mundane ways, but the specifics of how they work and how they might be used in the future is a topic previously reserved for the highly technical. That’s what makes the essence of drone racing, a sport fighting its way from the fringe to mainstream athletics, so exciting.

Talking to the pros (and yes, there are pros in drone racing) reveals a subculture dedicated to a sport that borders on something as much spiritual as it is techie. Drone pilots are eager to describe their out-of-body experiences as their drones, carrying cameras, allow them to race over mountain peaks via a pair of first-person-view (FPV) goggles.

It’s a relatively new field with technical challenges, as a virtual experience is transforming into a spectator sport, but plenty of enthusiasts are willing to try it. Among them: the owner of the Miami Dolphins, Stephen Ross, who helped launch the Drone Racing League, a series of races that take place around the U.S.

Two men with drones hovering in front of them
Left, Jordan Temkin; Right, Zach Thayer

Needless to say, the best pilots are already seeing big returns; the first World Drone Prix was held in Dubai last year with a top prize of $250,000. Professional drone pilot Zach Thayer, who won last year’s U.S. Drone Racing Nationals, and his fellow pilot, Jordan Temkin, who won the DRL World Championship, are both top-notch drone racers, but they are also roommates, friends, and collaborators who often stay up until 4 a.m. working on their drones together. It’s all fun and games until they compete.

You’ll be happy to know that it’s not too late to join the small but mighty drone community. Here’s a breakdown of the winning strategy behind the badass sport of drone racing.

Go Fast But Proceed With Caution

Photo taken from drone-mounted camera

When drones fly at 80 to 120 miles per hour during a race, about 50 percent of them crash, sometimes spectacularly, before the finish line. The tiniest adjustments can throw a pilot off course — which are exciting odds for an adrenaline junkie. The best pilots might have a need for speed, but they also need to refine their motor skills and cultivate an eye for detail. At the highest echelons of competition, it’s not uncommon to see finishes separated by only thousandths of a second.

Learn the Tricks

Drone racing is not strictly about speed. Pilots must master a slew of rolls, flips, keyholes, and combos to navigate the many obstacles of the daunting and constantly varied professional courses. A basic flip pitch refers to a 360-degree pitch roll, perfect to flip around an object, while a lazy headslide can be used to follow an opponent. Some moves, like the sidewinder, allow pilots to work around specific types of courses. The sidewinder is the go-to for weaving through keyhole spaces, like the railing of a staircase in a park or on a hiking trail.

Know Thy Enemy

In drone racing, a little strategic espionage is fair game. During practice rounds before a race, you can tap into other people’s feeds to observe their strengths and weaknesses. Is your competitor messing up at a particular turn? Take advantage of that. Let them feel confident on the straightaway, but be ready to gain on them as soon as they commit to the vulnerable turn. Studying the competition in a relatively small pool is absolutely key. Temkin estimates that there are between 20 and 30 really good pilots he keeps tabs on that he’s afraid to race. Among them? His buddy Zach Thayer.

Are you a Master of Strategy? Prove it.

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