It was just a few years ago that that we saw drones burst upon the scene. First they were a high-end accessory, the next step for RC flyers to progress to from their fixed-wing and helicopter model aircraft. They soon gained utility as photo and video capture devices, able to achieve shots which were otherwise impossible. Of late, drones are being considered for a whole host of other uses across the world, ranging from perimeter surveillance to item delivery. The more ambitious among the multicopter enthusiasts have even tried using them for personal transport and more recently, for assisted skiing and surfing.
The many uses of the tiny little contraptions have brought them on to the international spotlight, and recently, they're being used for a new purpose: the emerging sport of drone racing. Dubai held the World Drone Prix earlier this year, and October will see the 2016 World Drone Racing Championship held in Hawaii. The idea is that flyers wearing goggles that give them a first person view through cameras mounted on the drones fly through a pre-set course and navigate obstacles.
The fad has now caught on in India as well, with the Indian Drone Racing League (IDRL), slated to be held as part of Amalthea '16 at IIT Gandhinagar on October 22 and 23.. According to Karan Kamdar, whose company 1MartianWay, who are into building industrial drones and robots and serve as the parent for IDRL, drone racing has taken off like a storm across the world, with lucrative deals being signed and television contracts begin drawn up. For reference, the prize pool for the upcoming World Drone Racing Championship is $100,000.
"IDRL is the first Indian Drone Racing League. We are building a pan-India community of the best drone racing pilots in the country as well as hobbyists and beginners of this sport with a goal to provide a safe platform for Indian pilots who can compete at national and international events. The format of the race is currently set to be best-lap time finish per round among a series of qualifying and final rounds with four pilots competing per round at four radio frequencies for their drones," says Karan.
In Bengaluru, the passion for racing started among aeromodelling enthusiasts who used to meet up and fly together. "There was a group of us who used to meet outside the city to fly fixed wing and helis, and then one of us picked up FPV (FIrst Person View) drone flying, from which the rest of us got hooked," says Bhavesh Sangani, one of members of Bengaluru's drone flying community. "The drones used for racing are purpose-built, unlike the ready-to-fly variety more commonly seen here, and nowadays we have access to better parts and more powerful motors. It is an expensive sport to get into and the new perspective takes some getting used to. Therefore we take all possible precautions to ensure that all pilots are properly trained before they pilot the drones themselves," he adds.
One of the major hurdles the sport faces is that countries across the world, India included, are still figuring out the legalities of handing over fast, camera-equipped and relatively long-ranged equipment in the hands of citizens. "Currently the legal system around drones in general is rife with a lot of confusion with drones being permitted to fly on a case by case basis. There are more questions than answers at this point primarily because of two things - the number of aviation and government bodies that are involved in the regulations as well as the number of articles that are published that have varying takes on the position of the authorities," says Karan, adding that the key to flying drones in general is to get relevant permissions from concerned authorities. "At IDRL we are taking every step to make sure that whatever event we host has been approved by the authorities and the institutes with whom we are conducting the event. IDRL's mission is that of providing a safe, legal and controlled environment for using racing drones and we are not even building drones that weigh more than 500 grams or last more than 3 mins on a single charge. So the nature of the sport itself is enough to appease the authorities and we as a community are fully committed to working with the government and aviation bodies to make this a reality."
Karan envisions the IDRL as a platform that can grow over time, as a sport, and also as an avenue of learning. "We setup IDRL with a long term vision to enable world class drone racing pilots to emerge from India and also to spread awareness about the educational aspect of building and programming drones. Students not only learn programming but also get hands on education in electronics, mechanics and concepts of aerospace engineering, all while helping each other and building a sense of character, discipline and love for something that can translate into a real career."