I traveled to the Aerodrome yesterday for the third annual CES Drone Rodeo. The venue is empty desert next to picturesque mountains, just beyond the restricted air space around Las Vegas. There was a lineup of DJI drones anyone could fly and an augmented reality game that let you dogfight with virtual lasers. But the main attraction was the race course and the new Draco drone from UVify.
In the past if you wanted a racing drone, you had to build it yourself. That meant learning how to solder and program. If your drone broke, as they are prone to do, you had to learn how to make repairs. Draco aims to change all that. It costs $499, and the company says that right out of the box, the Draco drone can hit 100 miles an hour on a straightaway. And it’s made from entirely modular parts, so if you crash, you can easily buy replacements for your broken bits.
Drone racing has become increasingly popular over the last three years. ESPN struck a deal with the International Drone Racing Association to broadcast the sport on live TV. And the Drone Racing League raised $12 million in venture capital funding to build out its competition. Pilots are quitting their full time jobs and dropping out of college to pursue the dream of being a full-time drone racer.
I’ve put in upwards of a hundred hours piloting dozens of different kinds of drones in the course of reviewing units for The Verge over the last three years. But all of those units were built to make flying easy. When I took my hands off the controls, the drone would simply hover in place. Trying to fly the Draco was a whole different experience.
Draco, like most race drones, is optimized for speed and agility. Most camera drones try to get the longest possible battery life so you can maximize your time filming from the air. Race drones try to tune their settings so that the battery lasts just long enough to finish the race — usually around three or four minutes.
Trying to pilot the Draco felt like trying to walk a cheetah on a leash. If I let off the throttle, the drone would start falling toward the earth. When I throttled up to keep from crashing, the drone shot up into the sky, quickly getting beyond the range of my goggles, so that the live feed of the video would start cutting out. I flew twice, and never managed to stay in the air for more than a minute before crashing.
Focusing on a niche application, like racing, seems like a smart move for a drone startup these days. The consumer drone industry is starting to feel like a winner-take-all marketplace, with DJI emerging as the clear winner. To compete, you need to build something DJI won’t, like a drone optimized for speed, or something truly tiny, like the Dobby drone.
Now, just because I think Draco is making a smart business move doesn’t mean I think this is necessarily something that will be good for the drone industry. True, the unit has a beginner mode that limits the speed so beginners can train, but how many excitable teenagers are going to bother with that? Hopefully this unit will find a way to capitalize on the growing interest in drone racing as a sport without generating any scary headlines about flying robots crashing into people.