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Intelligent Machines

Is Drone Racing a Sport Yet?

Breakneck speeds, daring maneuvers, lucrative TV contracts, and large cash prizes—it’s way more exciting than golf.

Forget the football. The latest pastime to become a full-fledged sports phenomenon is drone racing.

Competing for supremacy in the air at small scale isn’t a new phenomenon: people have been going head to head with remote-controlled aircraft in fields for a long old time. But in the last few years, technology has provided competitions with a huge shot of adrenaline, in the form of the first-person view.

Nowadays, the small, nimble drones that zip through the air at speeds over 100 miles per hour are equipped with light, high-definition cameras, which wirelessly beam footage back to a pilot. A head-mounted display makes it feel as if that person controlling the drone is right on board. You can get a flavor for how exhilarating the perspective can be by watching videos like these.

But what started out as a grassroots hobby, where friends gathered for weekends of racing in the woods or through abandoned buildings, has suddenly exploded in popularity. The U.S. already has a national championship for racers, and this year Dubai hosted the first World Drone Prix. The winner—a 15-year-old pilot from England—walked away with $250,000.

Now, British broadcaster Sky has invested $1 million into the U.S.-based Drone Racing League, securing rights to broadcast events in the U.K. The league, which also has TV contracts with ESPN and 7Sports, will venture outside America next year, with at least one race taking place in London. Truly, drone racing is becoming a touring circus, like a pocket-size version of Formula 1.

For some of the best drone flyers, though, straight-down-the-line racing is already starting to lose its appeal. In a recent Wired feature, the widely revered pilot Carlos Puertolas explained that as head-to-head races becomes the mainstream, there’s more excitement to be found in flying freestyle—as he demonstrates in this dizzying video. As in snowboarding or skateboarding, this is drone racing’s alternative scene, where tricks and stunts, rather than outright speed, are what demonstrates talent.

Drone racing, then, has all the attributes of a modern sport: big money, TV coverage, speed, fierce competition … and a breakaway tribe that prefers to shun the commercialized side of things. Sounds like it’s time to tune in.

(Read more: The Guardian, Wired)

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