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Drone Racing, 'Star Wars'-Style, in the Snowy Bronx

Meet the gearheads trying to make first person view drone racing a new sport.

​It seems unlikely that we'll be zipping around on Star Wars-style pod racers anytime soon. But, gather up a few drones, some first person view video goggles, and a bunch of diehard pilots willing to hang out in a desolate, snowy part of the Bronx on a freezing day in February, and you're getting pretty close.

The world of FPV racing is still tight-knit. It's a segment of a segment of the growing but still relatively small drone industry. But that might not be the case for long. These homemade machines can fly at speeds of up to 100 miles an hour, making it the perfect option for people who have a speed obsession but can't shell out for a private jet. Those who race say it's going to be on ESPN one day, that we'll have drone racing stadiums, and leagues, and maybe even Mario Kart-style combat.


All images: Lara Heintz

Hanging out with these members of the New Yor​k City Drone User Group, it's hard to doubt them. It's clear that these are early days: This was the first ever race in New York, and there were problems. At one point, one competitor jumped onto another's video feed channel, forcing the original pilot to kill the throttle and crash his drone (thankfully, just a few props, or rotors, were broken).

There's also the issue of getting this approved by the Federal Aviation Administration. New rules put in place over the summer put FPV​ flying in murky legal territory, with most pilots taking the position that, if they don't hurt anyone, the​y won't run into trouble.

Once the kinks are worked out, however, it's easy to imagine this becoming the next big motorsport. The sound of one zipping over your head is incredible and the footage the drones stream back is begging for the Jumbotron treatment.

It's just a matter of taking it mainstream. Ryan Gury, cofoun​der of Dronekraft, a company that designs racing drones, organized Saturday's race and is trying to get a league set up. He imagines a NASCAR-style circuit, with races all around the US and Canada. He talks about specific pilots who have mastered moves like the "oil change," where a pilot flies underneath a (par​ked) car.

He's not crazy. A race in France gained internatio​nal attention last year, and an FPV organization tried setting up a league before—an idea that wa​s perhaps ahead of its time.

For now, however, FPV drone racers do it out of a love of flying and a passion for tinkering with their homemade (or at least home-assembled) quadcopters. How else do you explain why a dozen people would voluntarily spend the morning geeking out in the middle of a snowstorm?