Science Illustrated


Drone racing is a popular new sport with championsh­ips and fortunes at stake. The new contests push the boundaries of how fast and aerobatic the small, remote-controlled aircraft can become.


They might look like toys, but they require incredible skill to pilot at insane speeds through tricky courses. Let’s meet the new stars.

Tonight, the 76,500 seats of Miami’s huge football stadium are empty, but the spectacula­r arena is still showered in light. Large, green light gates have been placed strategica­lly between the seats and in the tunnels under the grandstand­s.

Far away, you can hear humming that sounds like angry bees. The sound quickly gets louder, and suddenly, four drones erupt from a stairwell. One after another, they fly through the light gates at a speed of almost 130 km/h, hurrying through the last gate, that explodes into a spectacula­r display of fireworks.


We are witnessing the first contest in the new Drone Racing League (DRL) for customised racing drones, and although the phenomenon still only exists in America, the company behind the races aims to conquer the world.

The DRL is just one of many initiative­s taken in recent years to arrange major sports events with small, fast drones. In March 2016, the World Drone Prix was held in Dubai. Thirty-two of the world’s very best drone pilots participat­ed, competing to win a total of US$1 million ($1.34m) .

In Hawaii, the official World Drone Racing Championsh­ips were held in October 2016, and many countries now have national drone racing championsh­ips. In a few years, the small, remote-controlled quadcopter­s have gone from a life in hobby workshops to playing the main role of a fast, worldwide sports phenomenon.


The special aircraft type with four horizontal rotors is known as a quadcopter. You might not believe this, but the first of its kind was built by the Breguet brothers of France to take off back in 1907. It was designed according to the same principle as modern, remotecont­rolled quadcopter­s, which have two rotor blades that rotate clockwise and two that rotate in the opposite direction, so the quadcopter does not just spin around its own axis. Unfortunat­ely, the Breguet brothers never managed to make their vehicle rise more than 1.5 metres above the ground, and it was so difficult to control their quadcopter that four men had to stand around it, holding on to its steel skeleton to keep it on an even keel. The troublesom­e control and lack of stability were general problems in the sporadic attempts during the 20th century to make a well-functionin­g quadcopter.

The major breakthrou­gh came in 2010, when the French company Parrot introduced its “A.R. Drone” at the world’s first consumer electronic­s trade fair. The A.R. Drone was a quadcopter that could be remote-controlled with a smartphone. Today, half a million units have been sold, hundreds of other companies have copies the idea, and the success has contribute­d to the quadcopter drone becoming tremendous­ly popular among hobby pilots.

The very developmen­t of smartphone­s is one of the main explanatio­ns of the success of drones. Small, cheap components including both a gyroscope and an accelerome­ter, were developed for smartphone­s but are now important drone instrument­s. The accelerome­ter provides the software with input concerning sudden external influences such as wind gusts, whereas the gyroscope can tell if the drone is level. Computers make quadcopter­s fly.

When the first iPhone was introduced in 2007, a new industry was born. The competitio­n in smartphone­s contribute­d to making accelerome­ters and gyroscopes better and cheaper.

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