Forget package delivery. Drone owners have found a much more thrilling use for their radio-controlled flying machines: racing.
The hobby has soared in popularity over the last few months, with a rapid rise in the number of new tournaments across North America.
More than a hundred pilots converged in California last month for the United States’ first drone racing championship, and Canada is set to follow suit with a tourney in Collingwood on Friday.
Racing drones, unlike those flown by police, are small, weighing less than a kilogram, and can reach breakneck speeds — more than 100 km/h.
They’re controlled differently, too. Before a race starts, pilots don video goggles that let them see what the drone sees.
“The whole idea of putting on a set of goggles and flying this thing is like nothing else,” said Paul Dowling, the owner of Autobotix, a store that specializes in racing drones in Toronto.
Jason Ambeault, project manager at a tech company, discovered drone racing after watching a YouTube video last December that showed a dozen UAVs whizzing through a forest in France. As an avid gamer, the feeling of immersion from a first-person perspective was a huge draw, he said.
“I’ve always been interested in remote-control cars and airplanes, from my great uncle years and years ago,” he said. “It’s like being in a real-life video game, basically.”
Now that he’s become an adept pilot, he hopes to win his first big race at the Collingwood Nationals. But he’ll face stiff competition with rivals from around the world, including the U.S and China.
Winning that race, he said, will require more than just a quick machine.
“It’s won in the corner,” he said. “If you can do efficient moves in the corners, then you’ll have a chance at winning. It’s about skills. The faster you are, the higher chance you have of crashing.”
In Toronto, rules surrounding the commercial use of drones remain murky. In April, Mayor John Tory’s executive committee unanimously approved a motion by Councillor James Pasternak asking city staff to report back on a “strategy governing the use of drones in the City of Toronto’s outdoor spaces.”
Drone flights are also regulated by Transport Canada, but those restrictions have yet to dampen enthusiasm for the hobby.
“The market is growing exponentially worldwide by the day. It’s inconceivable the amount of growth in the past few months,” Dowling said. “People are starting to see that this is not a fad.”