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It’s the coolest sport you’ve never heard of, and now drone racing is exploding across New Zealand. Two leagues have kicked off since January, with the first national championship already underway, and a trans-Tasman battle planned for later in the year.
The sport, which involves competitors racing camera-carrying drones through courses while watching a screen or via a pair of goggles, has taken off overseas. Already YouTube is full of videos showcasing the sport.
In January drone enthusiast Mat Wellington started up Rotorcross NZ, and held the league’s first race in March. Wellington says about 20 pilots turn out at each event, held roughly every two weeks around the country, and about as many spectators join the crowd. Group membership is at 50, and growing fast, he says.
“It’s the closest sport to actually flying for real,” he says. “It’s a really immersive sport, really competitive, but everyone has a lot of fun too.”
Wellington started the national championship at the same time as the league, with points from regional competitions building towards a grand finale likely to be held next year. He’s also organising a group of six pilots to head across the ditch in December for a bit of trans-Tasman rivalry.
Rotorcross NZ, which is supported by Model Flying New Zealand, uses the more established club’s flying grounds for competitions, and also has “fun flying” days where people can come along to get a feel for the sport.
It organises events through its Facebook page, and Wellington suspects the sport has taken off because it is much less expensive to crash a drone than other model flying machines. The hardy carbon fibre frames can endure impacts that would cost “hundreds and hundreds” of dollars to repair in another machine, he says.
Waikato man Bruce Simpson – who attained world-wide fame when his attempts to build a backyard turbo jet in 2003 saw him labelled a global terror threat – is behind another drone racing group, the NZ Drone Racing League, and says he’s hoping to get approval for incorporated society status soon.
The group started when he and a group of mates began meeting at the weekends to fly the little machines. After a few run-ins with the local council over safe spaces to fly, he managed to secure a spot on private land at Kinleith Mill, Tokoroa.
About eight people turn out from all over the central North Island each weekend, says Simpson, and the group always makes sure a pair of goggles (you can tune in to each racing drone and watch the view from their onboard camera) and an extra drone are around for any passers-by who get curious.
“It started taking off probably about a year ago when things became cheap and relatively available,” he says.
“The technology has been evolving for a number of years and it’s just got to the stage now where you could set yourself up for well under $1000 with a racing drone, and video glasses and all the stuff you need.”
Frankton Model Shop manager Nathan Toia, a drone flying enthusiast himself, agrees with the timeline. He says he noticed drone parts starting to fly out the shop door about a year ago.
“Drone racing is very popular at the moment. We’re seeing a big increase in the sales of parts, people are building the drones themselves.
“It’s a new clientele, people who don’t have any modelling experience in the past. They’re people who come from more of an electronics background.”
Toia reckons parts would make up less than five per cent of his sales currently, but expects it to grow to 20 per cent by next year. That pick up will largely be due to ready-to-fly models becoming available in the next few weeks, he says.
“There are a few overseas [ready-to-fly models] but they tend to be the cheapest components rather than what your racers want.”
But while there are still a “couple of spanners in the works” technologically speaking, and a few racing rules to iron out, all agree that there’s nothing likely to slow this trend down in the immediate future.