Racing drones through a forest is the sport of the future

The crowd at East Grinstead makes for an odd sight — most of them are wearing plastic goggles with long antennas sticking up, apparently ignoring their surroundings and staring out into empty space. Despite this, they react like a crowd at a football match, letting out oohs and aahs in unison, responding to some unseen action. Suddenly, a small drone skitters out of the trees on their right, crashing through the brushes before landing in a spray of dirt and leaves. There’s a cheer from the begoggled watchers and a small round of applause.

This is the world of first-person drone racing, an activity that currently occupies the ill-defined ground between dedicated pastime and fledgling sport. As drones become an increasingly mainstream phenomenon, racing leagues have popped up around the world. Anyone who takes it seriously — pilot or spectator — doesn’t watch their craft from a distance, but instead uses mounted cameras and special video goggles to see the world from their drone’s perspective, also known as first-person racing or FPV.

As far as drone racetracks go, the 100-meter-long course at East Grinstead is decidedly rural. Instead of a warehouse or a parking lot, the FPV League — one of the UK’s fledgling drone racing organizations — has decided to plot a circuit through a strip of woodland pitched on a steep hillside. The course is too narrow for the drones to race abreast, so instead, they’re competing individually in time trials. Each pilot pays a £10 ($15) buy-in and gets four goes ’round the track, with the winner taking home the pot. Just a few hundred meters away there are fields and open skies, but here the course is almost lost among the trees, with sharp turns, steep inclines, and even a miniature ravine all designed to test a pilot’s fine rotor skills.

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