How to Get Started with Drone Racing

Drone racing is one of the hottest, new sports out there. The spectacle of hot-shot pilots sending powerful drones racing around a track is a great spectator sport, so it is no surprise that ESPN is planning to start broadcasting races soon. And it's easy to get into: all you need is a drone and a few obstacles to fly through. Once you begin to hone your pilot skills, you can add the first-person view (FPV) headset that the pros use to watch the action from the drone's point of view. Here’s how to get into drone racing.

1. Find a local or online group

The best way to get a taste of drone racing is to find a local racing group and dive right in. These groups are popping up all over, and have regular meetings where the members get together to fly and show off their skills. These meetings are a great place to talk to enthusiasts about what racing involves.

Organizations like the US Drone Racing Association, MultiGP and the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) have local member groups that organize these meetings, and those who are interested in drone racing are usually welcome to attend. Some groups also offer classes to teach the basics of flying many types of aircraft, for both members and the public. The AMA charges $75 a year to join, and other groups may charge a similar fee to support their work.

If you want to find other like-minded drone racers online, the Reddit multicopter group and the DroneVibes forums are the most active, and are a great place to meet others and discuss the hows and whys of drone racing.

MORE: Drone Racing FAQ: Everything You Need to Know

2. Attend a race

There is nothing like the thrill of the race. The speed, the action, the crashes…. It all adds up to thrilling fun. Many local drone-racing groups organize race days on indoor or outdoor tracks, ranging from abandoned buildings and subterranean mines to simple tracks laid out in a local park.

These races are usually organized into classes for the different sizes and types of racing drones. How these classes are organized depends on the group behind them, but they are usually organized by weight, such as the 3S MultiGP class (less than 1.8 pounds) and the Mini class of the US Drone Racing Association (less than 0.6 pounds). For the serious flier, there is the open class, where there are no limits on size and weight.

The aim of the race is to finish the largest number of laps in a specific amount of time. The course is usually between 100 and 210 yards long, with a number of hoops or loops that the drones have to fly through. Miss a loop, and you have to fly back and go through it again. The courses are laid out to test the skills of the pilots, with sharp turns and altitude changes between loops that require quick maneuvering and control.

3. Get a racing drone

Once you have attended a race and have a need for speed, you can pick up a racing drone. Most serious drone makers build their craft by hand, picking from a huge range of components, looking for the fastest combination of motors, rotor blades and controllers.

Credit: Hubsan

(Image credit: Hubsan)

But before you go that deep, you'll need to get your feet wet. The best place to start is with a simple, cheap drone like the $120 Hubsan X4. This small, light quadcopter has a good amount of speed and control, and cheap parts for when you inevitably crash it. It's the best way to get a feel for how drone racing works, and the skills needed to be a pilot.

Most drone racers use a First-Person View (FPV) headset, which feeds the video from the drone camera right into your eyes. The X4 has a large screen on the controller, but the 5.8-GHz video signal it sends can also be received by FPV headsets such as the $199 Fat Shark Teleporter.

Credit: Drone Racing League

(Image credit: Drone Racing League)

Once you have become familiar and comfortable with flying a cheap drone like the X4, it is time to step up. A ready-to-fly drone like the $349 Storm Racing Drone Type A  is a good place to start, as it comes pre-assembled, calibrated and ready to fly. This offers much more speed and maneuverability than the X4, with a much bigger battery, more powerful motors and a controller that can handle the flow of energy these motors need. This also includes a more sophisticated controller that can be adjusted to your preferences, and useful features like a low-battery buzzer.

After that, the drone-racing world is wide open. You can gradually replace parts of the Storm with better, more expensive ones, or build your own drone from scratch with lighter, more powerful and more expensive components.

Some of the professional racing leagues require the use of a certain drone or components, though, so bear this in mind when building. Other leagues and competitions will supply the drones themselves to ensure a fair competition.

4. Practice

Once you have your drone, you'll need to practice, practice, practice. There are two ways to do this: on a test track or with a simulator.

The aim of drone racing is to navigate tight obstacles at speed, so many drone racers train in places like woods or buildings that offer plenty of obstacles. Come up with a simple course that you can practice, navigating it at higher speeds until it becomes second nature. Don't forget to go out in different weather conditions: not all races are held on clear, still days, so you will need to be able to handle wind and rain.

Wherever you do work on your skills, make sure it is away from people, as a runaway racing drone can seriously injure someone. Many radio-control user groups will have flying fields that are a good option, as they have already secured the appropriate permissions. There is a good index of clubs and flying fields on RC Airplane World.

For those days when the weather doesn't allow for outdoor drills, you can use your computer with a drone-racing simulator. There are a couple available: FPV Freerider ($5) and Drone Racing ($10). Both of these provide a good way to simulate flying on a number of tracks, and allow you to connect your drone controller to the computer for more realistic flight. Both programs are a little rough around the edges, so you will need some patience to set them up and get practicing. But once setup, they offer simulated flights with realistic physics and drones on a wide range of tracks. They even simulate things like the video fading out when the drone is a distance away, and the occasional stutters that a loss of signal can entail.

5. Race!

Finally, you are ready to race. When you are attending an organized race, don't forget to register in advance if required and read the rules. Some races will be for members only, while others may welcome all comers. All races will have a safety briefing and equipment check before you race, so make sure your drone and other equipment is properly set up and ready to go.

Before each race, you will be assigned a frequency to use, so double check that your equipment is set to that frequency, and that you are not interfering with other racers. Don't practice or test your system when other races are going on, as even a slight blip on a frequency that is in use can send a racer spiraling out of control. The frequency assignments are the key to a fair race, and messing with that will get you quickly thrown out or banned. 

Richard Baguley has been working as a technology writer and journalist since 1993. As well as contributing to Tom's Guide, he writes for Cnet, T3, Wired and many other publications.