This article was originally written by Sally French for Slate. As first published in Slate’s Future Tense:
In 2017, the Australian military drone-racing team made its competitive debut during the Australian Drone Nationals. Given the technology’s long history within the military, you might think they would have an edge. But that’s not what happened.
Drone racing is a fairly new sport that merges video game racing with real-life drone flying. Racers put on a pair of first-person view (or FPV) goggles, which allow them to see exactly what they would if they were sitting in the teeny-tiny cockpit. Then, they pilot the drones through a video game controller, sending the less-than-1-pound machine hurtling through intricate tracks that lead racers through hoops and sharp turns at speeds as fast as 70 mph.
At least, it’s 70 mph if you’re someone like Australia’s reigning champion. At the 2017 nationals, civilian Thomas Bitmatta piloted his drone around the 400-foot track in 19.87 seconds. The median time of all 52 racers was 26.13 seconds. Australia’s military team, on the other hand?
“To be honest, we came in dead last,” said Lt. Tom Gash, a member of the team. “It wasn’t great.” The Drone Nationals race is structured in a series of qualifying races, followed by a double elimination round, leading to the semifinals and ultimately final race. Gash’s drone crashed in the qualifying round, meaning he was one of just three racers that day to not end with a race time. The rest of the team wasn’t much better—their top racer came in 45th out of 49 total racers—and they ended up in last place out of 13 clubs.
Australia has about a dozen drone-racing clubs, and each is allowed to send up to four racers to the nationals. Military members are spread out across the nation, so before the event, the Australian drone-racing team captain had its members lay out a standardized drone-racing track and send in a video of them racing it. The four fastest were selected to go to nationals. But despite their best efforts to send the most qualified racers, Australia’s military team was still far less experienced than the rest.
Part of the problem was equipment. While most of the civilian competitors had multiple drones on hand to use as backup, the Australian military’s racers only came equipped with one drone each. With Gash’s crash, he was out. Other racers on the Australian military team broke propellers in early races—and didn’t have backups for their next heats. Luckily, the competition took pity on them. Gash said that Bitmatta, a current world champion drone racer, had gotten a free bag of propellers from one of his sponsors. “He just gave the whole bag to us,” Gash said.
Maybe that was the good nature of an emerging sport—or maybe it was clear the Australian drone-racing team was simply no threat.
But the Australian drone-racing team wants to make a big comeback this October. For the first time ever, drone racing will be one of the sports affiliated with this year’s Invictus Games—an annual international sporting event for wounded, injured, and ill veteran and active service personnel. This year’s games will be held in Sydney and are expected to draw high-profile attendees including Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. More than 500 competitors from 18 nations—including Afghanistan, Germany, Iraq, Ukraine, and the U.S.—are expected to participate.
The games host more traditional sports like swimming, powerlifting, and archery, but the hosting country gets to choose a competition to add to the lineup. Australia chose first-person view drone racing. Military members, retired or active duty, can participate in the drone race even if they aren’t Invictus-eligible athletes.
On the surface, it’s an interesting decision to put drone racing as a sport in a military-sponsored Olympics-style event. Drone technology is rooted in the military dating back as far as the 19th century, and even played a major role in World War I, when the U.S.’s Dayton-Wright Airplane Co. invented a pilotless aerial torpedo. Military drone technology led to the development of consumer drones, typically $1,000 flying robots with cameras mounted to them, such as the Mavic drone made by Chinese drone manufacturer DJI.
And from consumer drones with cameras led to a group of people who wanted to fly faster and with more agility, leading to the recent rise in drone racing. The sport has been rapidly growing: It’s been aired on ESPN, drawn investment dollars from Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, and landed sponsorship deals by major brands such as PepsiCo and GoPro Inc. The military racers say drone racing is a means of building camaraderie, as well as skills-building. “There’s a lot that goes into drone racing that you don’t have to worry about when flying in a park,” Gash said. “Drone racing requires extreme agility—the ability to accelerate and decelerate around tight turns.” Drone racing is also a means of identifying not just the people who have the fine motor skills to fly drones, but those who have building, mechanical, multimedia, or leadership chops.
“Because of the wide range of skills involved to race drones, immediately we say, we want to pick those people to become UAV operators,” said Keirin Joyce, the Unmanned Aerial Systems program manager for the Australian army. “We are interested in bringing them in to the defense forces for a range of technical trades. That kid could be a multimedia technician in our intelligence battalion, or a helicopter technician in our aviation regiment.”
The competition at the games in October is going to be fierce. One of the top contenders is the British Army’s Royal Artillery drone-racing team. Though it’s unfunded, it has already won against the U.K.’s Royal Air Force team, which has been around a lot longer after growing out of a model aircraft group, has financial support from the British government, and is made up of members of, well, the air force. “The reason we beat our Royal Air Force team is we had the advantage of being able to train together as a team,” said team captain Karl Eze.
The Royal Air Force team also has a few stars, Eze said. But while the Army’s Royal Artillery team doesn’t have one standout competitor, Eze thinks they ultimately have a better strategy with 5–6 solid racers to choose from to put on the team. At the Invictus Games, the Royal Air Force and Royal Artillery team will race under one umbrella team representing the British armed forces.
The Australian military team has a better plan this time around, and they are confident they will win. Since their big loss at Drone Nationals, the team has ramped up their training efforts. They now host demos for local school groups, allowing them to do public good for the community while getting practice drone racing in unfamiliar settings in front of an audience. They are also competing in (and winning) local meets. In May, two members of the Australian Army Drone Racing Team landed the first- and second-place spots in a regional qualifying round for the 2018 Australian Nationals.
Another top-contending team is South Korea. Because military service is compulsory, many of the country’s best FPV pilots will be eligible to compete in the Invictus Games. Gash has a hunch some of them will show up.
Of course, Australia’s team isn’t above replicating that same sneaky strategy. Gash has one idea for how they can beat South Korea: “I’d like to see if we can find a way to get Bittmatta on our team.”
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