Banni UK takes first place in spectacular close to million-dollar World Drone Prix drone racing event.
15-year-old UK pilot Luke Bannister’s drone racing team won $250,000 and the World Drone Prix (WDP) 2016 premiere event today in Dubai. The champion’s flawless performance bested powerful competitors from Russia, Dubai and the Netherlands.
Today was also a victory for beleaguered World Drone Prix organizers, who, after a rocky start to the contest, put on a first-class show in the glitzy United Arab Emirates (UAE) city – and proved that drone racing is poised to get much, much bigger.
Fast and steady dominates the race
The final race of the two-day main event saw Bannister’s Tornado X-Blades Banni-UK team grab and hold an early lead over Dubai Dronetek, VS Mescheriakov from Russia, and Dutch Drone Race Team SQG in a 12-lap, 7 km marathon race that lasted under ten minutes. Drones flew at average speeds of about 30 mph – faster on straightaways – as they navigated ten illuminated gates and two alternate routes.
Bannister’s quick learning and steady hands showed in the jaw-dropping final, as he repeatedly crested the track’s ominous eight-meter-high vertical tower in elegant parabolas. Others had struggled with the vertical flyover in earlier races, losing time or even crashing as they tried to align with the crowning gate.
With his perfect, focused lines – foregoing the showy flourishes he allowed himself in yesterday’s elimination races – the young pilot and his well-practiced technicians set a benchmark performance for the sport.
Bannister was humble despite his emphatic showing: “You can’t be the best racer,” he said in response to an interviewer pointing out that many say he holds that title. “There’s so much luck involved.”
The top finishers opted to stop twice in the pit for battery swaps, allowing them to fly all-out the remainder of their time. This pit stop strategy evolved quickly over the two day event. Race rules required a minimum of one pit stop, a previously rare feature in drone racing. The best pit crews got drones back in the air in around thirty seconds.
Local favorite Dubai Dronetek placed second and took home the biggest cash haul of the event: a total of $275,000, including $125,000 for their second place racing finish, $100,000 for winning the audience-voted “Best Team” award, and another $50,000 for the best racing finish by a UAE team.
Dutch Drone Race Team SQG crashed several minutes into the final race, still earning themselves $25,000 for fourth place.
VS Meschcheriakov of Russia tumbled too, after a collision that sent an audible clunk to livestream viewers around the world. But with apparently undamaged props, their pilot righted the quad and completed the race for third. They leave Dubai with $150,000: $50,000 for taking bronze in the final, plus a second prize of $100,000 for clocking the fastest single lap time.
Thanks to its UAE government backing, the global event had $1 million to hand out to the world’s finest FPV drone racing teams. Team Awkbots, No Longer Noob, DroneXLabs from the U.S.A, and Vincbee Team from Belgium each snagged $12,500 by rounding out the top eight finishers.
Judges gave the “Constructor Award” for best quad build – and $100,000 in prize money – to Team Sigandrone, also from the U.S., for its craftsmanship and distinctive look.
Along with Dubai Dronetek, Drone Worx Dubai won a prize for finishing second among the top local UAE team; a third winner for that category is still to be established based on results in the pre-qualifier.
In the competition’s freestyle event, pilots pushed drones to their limits as they showed off incomprehensibly nimble FPV flips and playfully toyed with static obstacles. Minchan Kim came first in the event, winning $50,000, followed by “Mr Steele” Davis for $25,000 and Drone Worx Dubai pilot Johnny Schaer for $12,500. Chad Nowak and Luke Bannister followed up in fourth and fifth place, adding to Bannister’s take-home total by $6,250.
“Today was simply amazing to say the least,” Schaer told us.
A milestone for drone racing
This ultimately successful start to the new World Drone Prix comes as drone racing enjoys unprecedented levels of attention. Major media outlets like the Associated Press and United States’ NPR reported on Bannister’s win in Dubai, while Google search interest in FPV racing is rising rapidly from nearly nothing just several years ago.
(The dropoff in 2016 is due to the partial data for this year.)
This past year also brought the launch of other well-funded and professionally produced competitions like the Drone Racing League, while established community favorites like MultiGP and XDC continue to grow.
“E-Sports is over a billion dollar industry, and our sport has the potential to take the industry by storm,” said World Drone Prix co-organizer Justin Haggerty.
The World Drone Prix distinguished itself from any other drone race with its long race time. Pilots are used to pushing their drone, and themselves, as hard as possible for two to four minutes before making a crash landing. For WDP the emphasis was on the drone build, effective pit stop time management, and pilots having steady nerves over the marathon length. It’s also a team race. Navigators were crucial for directing the pilot along the alternate routes and to overcome the ‘Tower of Terror’. Pit stop technicians were vital for maintaining the drone’s flight capabilities.
World Drone Prix overcomes hasty planning, widespread skepticism
Organizers announced the World Drone Prix late in 2015 with the backing of United Arab Emirates officialdom – the head of organizing body World Organizations for Racing Drones (WORD) also works for the office of the prime minister. WORD, with co-founding organizations International Drone Racing Association and Aerial Grand Prix, opened the contest to pilots around the world, including Asian countries like China, Japan, and South Korea.
They solicited filmed applications from any pilot who could put together a minimum three-person team and find a sponsor. 32 of those applicants earned free travel to the competition courtesy of WORD, which also welcomed others paying their own way to pre-qualifiers in Dubai earlier this week.
Organizers promised “the biggest event for Drone Racing in history” and released slick promotional material, including a video featuring a drone racing a McLaren automotive through the desert and through Dubai itself.
But while the hype was on overdrive, race rules and logistical details were slow to come. WORD notified the 32 invited teams of their free tickets just over a week before they needed to arrive in Dubai for practice and pre-qualification runs, and released clarifications of technical specifications – like the placement of a mandatory 200g HD broadcast camera – around the same time. This last-minute invitation meant some pilots unable to attend. Carlos “Charpu” Puertolas couldn’t receive his visa in time to fly to Dubai. Other pilots had important work or family responsibilities.
Day 1 opening races, which pitted 32 qualifying teams against each other, were marred by hours-long delays, calamitous absences of livestreaming audio and informed commentary, and races requiring reruns after technical failures. Organizers said the high humidity caused condensation in some of the event’s systems.
Yet the competition more than redeemed itself with Day 2’s thrilling production. Organizers resolved technical glitches and added experienced pilots, including Rotor Riot’s pilots Chad Nowak and Steele Davis, to the announcer’s booth, while a strong crowd of spectators – including several local dignitaries – cheered on the racers. Social media was buzzing with #WDP16 chatter in a dozen languages.
— SHATHA❤️ (@ShathaAlfalasi) March 12, 2016
A bright future for drone sports, and a new hub in the UAE
The UAE, which has sought to diversify its federated emirates’ mostly oil-driven economies, is boosting the unmanned aircraft systems industry with supportive policies and events. It awarded $1 million in February to the winner of its first “Drones for Good” competition. And today the government announced the creation of the World Federation of Future Sports, which will support competitions that integrate “research and technological development with sports”.
Third Law Sports readers can look forward to the federation’s inaugural World Future Sports Games in December 2017, which the announcement said would feature robotics-based sports including drone racing, autonomous car racing, robotic wrestling, soccer, track, and table tennis.
Major institutions are keen to support these sports, with an eye to the positive externalities of developing technologies and skills through competition. And events like this week’s World Drone Prix prove that drone racing can thrill both curious newcomers and diehard fans. There is nowhere to fly but up. And today was just the beginning.