Not too long ago, superior joystick skills at the age of 15 might have won you nothing more than bragging rights among your gaming buddies, but for one young pilot from England, it has led to a huge payday and instant recognition among a global community. In Dubai over the weekend, Luke Bannister beat out 150 other competitors from around the world to lead his team to victory at the first World Drone Prix, returning home with a cool US$250,000 in tow.
The inaugural World Drone Prix took place over March 11 and 12 at Skydive Dubai on the world’s first racetrack built specifically for drones. In this drone racing competition, like other drone events of amateur and professional nature around the world, pilots wear virtual reality headsets and steer their vehicles around the race track in first person view.
Although a number of drone racing contests have popped up in the last 12 months, none quite match the generous purse of the World Drone Prix. A total of $1 million was on offer, spread out across freestyle and racing categories, with other prizes awarded for a crowd favorite, fastest lap and fastest local team from the United Arab Emirates.
But the track racing category was very much positioned as the main event. Some 150 teams, hailing from all around the globe, started out in the World Drone Prix. Entrants were able to remotely qualify for the event via an American Idol-style submission video. Then, at an indoor qualifying track at Skydive Dubai, this number was whittled down to 32.
The field then pitted their drones against one another on an outdoor, 591-m (646-yd) race track. The illuminated course tempts the more audacious competitors with Mario Kart-style shortcuts and makes for quite a spectacular setting with Dubai’s towering skyline in the background.
The 32 was cut down to a round of 16, followed by semi finals and then a grand finale on Saturday night. Bannister’s Tornado X-Blades Banni UK team claimed first place in the final, beating out Dubai Drone Tek, VS Meshcheriakov and Dutch Drone Race Team SQG , whose hauls of $125,000, $50,000 and $25,000, respectively, aren’t exactly pocket change either. By way of comparison, and to demonstrate how the sport has exploded in popularity, last year’s inaugural US Drone Racing National Championship offered a total purse of $25,000.
That Dubai is offering up plenty of money for such an event doesn’t really come as a surprise, and not just because of its reputation for extravagance. Last year it launched the $1 million Drones For Good competition, a global contest aimed at highlighting the humanitarian potential of the technology.
Meanwhile, a cabinet-level minister used the World Drone Prix event to launch the Word Future Sports Games. Set to take place in December 2017, the event is designed to drive innovation and contributions to research and technology. Among the competitions will be driverless car racing, robotic soccer, running and swimming and of course, drone racing.
Whatever the successes and failures of the first World Future Sports Games, Dubai is clearly hoping a big bet on robotics will pay big dividends in the long term.
You can check out some of the first-person view video from the World Drone Prix’s final race below.