Off to the Drone Races

star wars_Drone_Drone_flying_throug

One of the most iconic scenes from Return of the Jedi is the Endor speeder bike chase. Who could forget Luke and Leia whizzing through the forest, bumping into storm troopers and send them crashing into trees in a shower of sparks? In a scene likely created to remind reviewers of this chase, the young Anakin Skywalker proves his racing mettle in the Phantom Menace. While it succeeds mostly in making me nostalgic, I have to admit that this was one of the better scenes in the movie, both because the effects were cool and because of the absence of stupid dialogue.


Sure, we’ve got jet skis and snow mobiles, but they seem pretty tame compared to speeder bikes. How far off is the NASCAR of personal aircraft? Well…that depends on how we pilot the vehicles.

Turns out, drone racing is an actual thing. In fact, there’s a U.S. National Drone Racing Championship, which was held this year at the California State Fair and doled out $25K worth of prizes to the best of the more than 100 pilots who competed. There are a fair number of rules—it’s unlikely Sebulba would have avoided disqualification—and requirements necessary to compete, but the sport is established enough that there’s a “California Style,” which features agility tests such as obstacle courses, hairpin turns, and “funnel gates.” I don’t even know what those are, but they sounds pretty cool, mostly because they sounds like “funnel cakes,” which I hope are also part of the drone races.

Drones getting ready to race. Photo credit: Jean-Marc Favre/MEDAVIA.CO.UK

Drones getting ready to race. Photo credit: Jean-Marc Favre/MEDAVIA.CO.UK

FPV Racing is actually a huge thing—just search for it on YouTube or Google videos of it and you’ll see what I mean. FPV means first person view, which entails flying a quadcopter equipped with a camera that sends video footage to a screen or to goggles (the most popular brand is “Fat Shark”). The goggles are awesome–they’re basically like a mini TV with an antenna for picking up the signals sent by the drone, whose video footage is then displayed on tiny screens on the inside of the lenses. The effect is immersive, as though the pilot is actually sitting in the cockpit of the drone. They can fly up to 70 mph and there are no speeding tickets.

What’s by far the most common place to race them? The forest, of course. AIRgonay, an organization of
French drone enthusiasts, set up a Star Wars-inspired course in southern France.

I’ve flown a little quadcopter drone before (though not FPV), and they’re damn hard to maneuver. I could barely get the thing off my porch and I crashed it into the steps twice. Crashing is both the worst and the most awesome thing that can happen in drone racing. While most quadcopters can be damaged pretty easily, companies such as Game of Drones(nice one) have started making durable and versatile frames that can withstand crashes and can be assembled DIY fashion or custom-built. The drone I tried to fly wasn’t so hardy, though, and I gave up trying to fly it after a couple minutes because it wasn’t mine and I was sure I’d break it. Maybe I need a little training before I’m ready to race through the forest. Some people are impressively adept at navigating, like the person who drove the winning time trial run at an obstacle course in the UK.

How much will an FTP drone set you back? $350 or so—or at least, that’s what it costs for HeliPal’s racing drone (I’m not advocating this particular model, but I do appreciate the many video clips). But the goggles and other accessories can cost at least that much, and often more.

Still, it’s cheaper than a car or a motorcycle. The potential to explore with these drones–not spy, mind you, but to gain access to places we can’t physically go–is for me at least as appealing as its racing potential. One of my favorite FPV videos wasn’t shot in the forest, but in an abandoned hospital in Spain by a pilot who goes by Charpu.

I don’t know when we’ll actually be able to sit down and fly something like this, or when it would be legal to do so even if we had the means, but I figure FPV technology, along with virtual and augmented reality will render that question moot. Add in some storm troopers and an AT-AT (don’t worry about the Ewoks) and I’m there.

Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi – Speeder Bike Chase Scene with Score from Space Monkey on Vimeo.

This scene was taken from 'Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi' – a sequence, that was originally done without any score.

Bits from John Williams' scores for the original 'Star Wars Trilogy', were remixed and edited to fit this scene, to act as an example of musical score for this action sequence and to show how this scene might would have felt like with a thrilling score.

I do not own any rights to any of the material used in this clip. This clip is purely made for educational purposes. No copyright infringement intended.

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2 Responses to Off to the Drone Races

  1. Drone racing on espn in the future?

  2. BRD says:

    Love the comparison to Star Wars, hope drone racing will, one day, reach to that level!

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