WATCH: UK drone racer on first-person-view racing and building drones

SHANGHAI, China – Tiny drones zigzagged like bees on the first day of spring at Mobile World Congress Shanghai's drone racing tournament. 

The drones flew across a track made of neon-lit t-shaped bars and octagonal "gates," attempting to set the best lap times. The tough part: drones are not the easiest things to control – especially on a tight track with nearly 90-degree turns and abrupt changes in elevation.

When things go wrong, the drones find themselves stuck in the net covering the entire arena like a wrestling cage or on the ground.

WARNING. Signs like this one can be seen all around the net cage, warning people of errant, high-speed drones. Photo by Gelo Gonzales/Rappler

WARNING. Signs like this one can be seen all around the net cage, warning people of errant, high-speed drones.

Photo by Gelo Gonzales/Rappler

The drones take a beating – the crowd oftentimes ooh-ing at some painful-looking crashes. The racers don't actually get physically hurt as a car racer might, but these gadgets aren't cheap, and that's what makes one cringe horribly at the audible crashes. 

"£250" – that's the ballpark figure for making one's own drone, said pilot Gary Kent of the multinational "Xblades."

Kent advises, "If you're starting out, the best thing you can do is, either buy a very small line-of-sight drone, not one with a first-person-view (FPV) camera, just one you can fly line-of-sight and see whether you like it, and whether you can get a feel for it."

Kent suggests getting a simulator to start. "It will save you a lot so much money in the long run as well because if you go out and buy your own drone or build your own drone, there's a lot of crashing involved; you break a lot of things," said the pilot. 

The investment, however, will be well worth it for pilots who become very good. In 2016, Dubai's World Drone Prix had a prize pool of $1 million – $250,000 of which went to Kent's then-15-year-old teammate, Luke Bannister, the winner. It's a growing sport, Kent said, with several drone racing leagues establishing their spot, and growing prize pools. 

The rewards could be more than monetary though. Kent beamed talking about the experience of piloting a drone with goggles in first-person-view:

"It's a strange feeling because when you first put the goggles on, if you give them to somebody who's never flown before, it's almost like you're looking at a TV screen. But once you've flown for a week or a few days, you forget that you're looking at a screen, and it becomes your eyesight, and you forget about the controls."

DRIVING GOGGLES. The first-person-view goggles immerse the pilot into seeing what the drone camera sees, resulting in better pilot-drone syncing. Photo by Gelo Gonzales/Rappler

DRIVING GOGGLES. The first-person-view goggles immerse the pilot into seeing what the drone camera sees, resulting in better pilot-drone syncing.

Photo by Gelo Gonzales/Rappler

He likened the experience to driving a car: "It's like when you get in a car, and you go to drive somewhere, you're not thinking about driving the car, you're just thinking about where you're going, and how you're going to get there. It's the same with drone racing; once you put your goggles on, and you're immersed in it, you're not thinking about the flying, you're just thinking about where you can go, what you can do, where you can explore or the racing line.

He finishes, excitedly sharing how drone racing has changed how he sees the world around him: "Once you know how to fly, your world is opened up. You think about things in a different way. You walk down the street, and you'll see things you normally wouldn't think about: "I'd like to fly through that," "I'd like to dive down that building," "I'd like to skim under that bench." – Rappler.com

Gelo Gonzales

Gelo Gonzales is Rappler’s technology editor. He covers consumer electronics, social media, emerging tech, and video games.

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