Research Triangle (Drone) Racing

My first introduction to drones was this past summer at the Duke Marine Lab. The only experience I had with them had been in an academic setting, but I knew they had a wide recreational user base as well. In fact, this past holiday season you could find them from tech stores, like Best Buy, to retail outlets, like TJMaxx. En route to our usual Saturday trip to the Durham Farmers Market, my friends and I heard what we hypothesized to be either drilling or a swarm of angry bees. Near Foster Street, where the market is held, sits Old North Durham Park. It offers a sizable athletic field, picnic tables and a nice playground. Originally, we thought the tall flags were markers for a 5k, but as we got closer we realized they were obstacles for a drone race!

If you have never witnessed a drone race before it is mind boggling to see up close. Racers sit or stand outside the track area with what look like virtual reality headsets on, holding intricate remote controls. The live feed goggles allow them to participate in the race on a first-person level—almost like a video game. Both speed and technicality are needed to whip through a series of flags and gates three times in two minutes. Either the fastest or last man standing wins the race.

Drones take off from launch pads to start the race. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Where the real race takes place. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Comparing the drones used by Duke’s Marine Robotics and Sensing Lab to those used for racing is like comparing a butterfly to a tank. The heaviest part of a drone setup is oftentimes the battery. Duke’s hexacopters are built to hold larger batteries that can last more than an hour, gimbal systems that allow up to a 15 lb. payload, and state-of-the-art cameras and sensors that result in smooth footage. Racing drones, on the other hand, are usually quadcopters made of lightweight materials, like carbon fiber and foam, with batteries that last about 2.5 minutes.

Hexacopter equipped with landing gear and large camera. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Minimal quadcopter. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Though you may have seen drones for reasonable prices on sale at local tech and retail stores, drone racing equipment is in a league of its own. Specialty online stores offer a wide variety of products, but even physical stores have begun to pop up due to the hobby’s popularity. I’ve seen some estimates of it costing upwards of $1,000 just to get started in racing. Hopefully, as the sport becomes more mainstream, the expense hurdle lowers.

Racers, start your engines. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Unbeknownst to me, a recreational user base had formed right here in the Research Triangle, the Raleigh Rotor Racers. I later found that the Raleigh Rotor Racers operate through MultiGP, the largest professional drone racing league in the world. They host competitive gatherings and offer tools, guidance, and community support. Even ESPN has picked up MultiGP drone racing events. The Research Triangle continues to surprise me with events and opportunities I never even conceived. Getting to witness this race was an unexpected treat. I will now be keeping an eye out for events like this in the area!