There is a throwback quality to Popham airfield: it consists of a pair of grass runways and a handful of sheds set atop a low hill deep in the Hampshire countryside. A sign at the entrance informs visitors that it is home to the Spitfire Flying Club, whose 400 members devote themselves to the piston-engined, propellor-powered aircraft that first flew 80 years ago. When I arrive, a few dozen cars and camper vans are parked on the grass, with perhaps a hundred men – and only a handful of women – milling around. Foldable camp chairs are dotted about, with limp, plastic-wrapped sandwiches stowed underneath to protect them from the light drizzle that is, inevitably, falling.
But never mind the lack of glamour. This weekend Popham is playing host to the Queen’s Air Race Challenge Cup. It has been awarded for excellence in a variety of aeronautical pursuits since 2010 but the trophy itself, dating from 1719, is believed to be the oldest piece of sporting silverware in Britain. For the first time the cup is to be awarded for a high-tech, fast-paced sport that did not exist even three or four years ago, but which is growing extremely quickly – drone racing. At stake are two of Britain’s five spots at the World Drone Racing Championships in Hawaii, in October.
After the compulsory safety briefing the sun comes out. As the drizzle fades, so do all nostalgic thoughts. The drones in question are souped-up versions of the four-rotor machines that can be bought off-the-shelf from any toy shop or hobbyist store. Stripped by their owners of all excess weight, they are little more than levitating circuit boards with batteries attached, without the smooth aerodynamic profile that flying machines are supposed to have. Their pilots look decidedly futuristic, too, sitting by the side of the racetrack with remote-control boxes in their hands (one is wearing a military-style khaki flight suit). They stare, blind to the world, into radio-linked headsets that relay images from the drones’ front-facing video cameras back to their owners on the ground.
The principles are simple enough: the race-track is marked out by a line of white discs on the ground. Pilots must follow the course while guiding their machines under crescent-shaped gates, round sharp corners and through dense undergrowth, dodging trees, bushes and other drones, while avoiding a crash-landing. Once the drones are airborne they are fast and graceful, and the skill of the pilots becomes immediately apparent. Darting and jinking around the course to the high-pitched buzz of electric motors, swerving on a sixpence and performing high-speed rolls and loops, the drones resemble a swarm of hyperactive, brightly coloured dragonflies. Collisions are common, with drones careering into trees or smashing into competitors in mid-air. After every qualifying round at least one or two pilots run onto the course to recover their stricken machines.
The speed, skill and smashes make drone racing a compelling spectator sport. But it suffers from the same problem as any sort of racing – spectators have to pick a part of the track and stay there. That means a few brief seconds of excitement as the drones whizz by (racing models can clock speeds of up to 80mph), followed by long periods staring at an empty track, waiting for them to come around again.
The sport’s popularity has burgeoned, however, on the back of another way to watch – first person. Since the drones broadcast their camera footage, anyone with the right receiver can see the same view as the pilot. Being virtually strapped to the front of a speeding drone is undeniably exciting. Enthusiasm for the pastime has spread on the back of clips uploaded to YouTube, showing stunt flying in forests, ruined buildings or construction sites. The drones dive through windows, slalom around trees and skim under parked cars. Science-fiction comparisons abound: older racers talk of the jet-bike scene from “Return of the Jedi”, in which Luke Skywalker embarks on a hoverbike chase through a forest; for younger racers, high-speed, futuristic video-games such as “F-Zero” or “Rollcage” are the natural comparisons.
The sheer excitement of the first-person view has led many people to think that, with a financial boost and a generous dusting of glamour, drone racing could become the next big spectator sport. ESPN, a leading American sports channel, has begun broadcasting some races, including the US National Drone Racing Championships, which took place in New York the week after the Popham event. One of the competitors at Popham was Luke Bannister, who won $250,000 by coming first in the World Drone Prix, held in Dubai in March (Bannister was 15 at the time). That event took place at night, with the course, and the drones, lit up in neon colours to help spectators follow what was happening, and it was broadcast online. Drone racing also featured at the Farnborough Air Show, one of the world’s biggest, in July.
Most ambitious of all is the Drone Racing League (DRL), launched earlier this year. Its founder, Nicholas Horbaczewski, unabashedly compares his ambitions to Formula 1. He envisions a worldwide series of elite, invitation-only events, pre-packaged, slathered in glitz and ready to sell to television. His firm builds all its own drones to ensure a level playing field between pilots; each are tagged with brightly coloured LEDs to keep them visible to spectators. It has also invested in improved radio links that allow its events to be held indoors (at Popham, a stand of trees at one end of the course caused enough interference for some pilots to lose signal completely).
That, in turn, lets the course designers get creative. One event, held at an American football stadium in Miami in February, featured drones flying through neon-lit gates suspended above the seating area, before diving into the entrance tunnels and zipping through the bowels of the building, dodging vending machines, concrete pillars and narrow hallways flooded with fog courtesy of dry-ice machines and more neon lights. Interference from the walls would make that sort of thing impossible with off-the-shelf radios, says Horbaczewski.
A lot of effort has gone into making the end product as TV-friendly as possible. Besides drone engineers and radio specialists, the DRL employs dozens of people with experience in putting on big sporting events, and has developed specialist camera systems that can keep up with the drones as they flit about the course. “We use a mixture of first-person and third-person views to give spectators a sense of what’s happening in the race,” he says.
The result is undeniably slick, with all the pizazz and production values you might expect of professional American sport. There has been plenty of interest: Stephen Ross, who owns the Miami Dolphins (an American football team) is one investor; CAA, an agency that represents athletes and film stars is another. So far, all the DRL’s races have been in America, but Horbaczewski says that will change next year. Television networks are reputed to be interested, although he will not, for now, say which. Traditionalists may scoff at a sport that is played sitting down, but in recent years everything from competitive video games to poker have found big audiences on TV and online. With its mix of high technology, raw speed and glitz, drone racing could well become the next sport of the future.