It was my second lap around the course at the Clark County Shooting Complex when the adrenaline really kicked in. I was rounding a turn with my opponent hot on my tail and losing altitude as I angled for the flag. "You're coming in low!" shouted one of the spectators, and I throttled up, sending a spray of dirt in front of my eyes before I blasted into the straightaway and got back to a safe height. For a moment I forgot that I was sitting on a chair with some Fatshark video glasses strapped to my head. I felt like I was flying.
The course had been set up as part of the Drone Rodeo being put on by DJI, one of the biggest names in the business. DJI folks were there to show off their newest unit, the Inspire One, but they also invited a bunch of industry partners to help them demonstrate some of the crazier things people are doing with drones these days. The most prominent sport emerging from the boom in consumer drones is racing — and racing with a first-person view, or FPV racing, using video glasses.
There was a five-flag course set up inside a shotgun shooting range: a flat expanse of desert surrounded on three sides by high clay hills. It was my first experience with FPV racing, and I got a visceral thrill out of it. That was using a DJI Phantom in GPS mode that topped out at around 30 miles per hour. Real racers drop the GPS assist and go full manual for more fine-grained control and faster speeds. There were also a few purpose-built racing drones on the course, stripped down chassis that were little more than flight controllers, cameras, and four rotors. They screamed around the course at nearly 100mph.
After the race we headed to the far corner of the rodeo, where the madmen from Game of Drones had set up their fighting arena. In the year I've spent flying drones regularly, the one constant has been that everyone tries as hard as possible to avoid a crash. Not these guys. They've come up with a sport where two drones enter and one drone leaves, smashing them into each other repeatedly in an effort to break a rotor, detach a flight controller, or snag your opponent in the netting that surrounds you.
To make this hobby less expensive and torturous, Game of Drones have created their own proprietary polymer for the body of the drones. It can stand up to a tough crash, a flame thrower, and according to a YouTube video released by the league, a couple of shotgun blasts. They lent me a baseball bat and let me go at it. I also put it on the ground and jumped on it with my full weight, but couldn't produce a crack.
I stepped into the arena to battle Marque Cornblatt, the league's creative director. I managed to get above him and drop my drone on his rotors, scoring a point. When your rotor breaks or your drone won't fly, you have 90 seconds to repair it or your opponent scores another point. This lends a sort of manic mechanical element, something like a NASCAR pit crew, to the game. But after Cornblatt got back in the air, he dropped me two times in a row, before I ran myself into a wall by accident and ended the match.
As the sun set against the Spring Mountains bordering Las Vegas, a beautiful purple and orange hue lit up the sky. The temperature started dropping fast, so we packed up our gear. But the crew of racers and aerial gladiators at the rodeo wasn't ready to quit. Somebody found the switch for the flood lights, rotors whirred to life, and another set of laps began. As drones become a ubiquitous toy, it's fair to ask if this is the beginning of a brand sport with mainstream potential, or a fad that will fade after a few years. For my money, the experience of FPV racing, the feeling of flight without ever leaving the ground, is something that will captivate people for decades to come.