By: Kathleen Hickey
A New Era in FPV Racing
Anyone in the UAV, or drone community will notice one particular area that is on a steady rise; FPV Racing. In recent months FPV Racing has been riding a wave of attention, and growth that is seemingly unstoppable. Local races and meet-ups in parks have turned into large multi-day events, in incredible locations, all around the world. Companies like ESPN, Mountain Dew, and GoPro are all testing the waters to see if FPV Racing can be a viable source of marketing, and income. There is talk of introducing gambling to the sport. But with growth, and money come higher stakes for people involved, and leaves one to wonder what will become of a growing sport if put in the hands of people that want to monetize it.
Racing With The Big Boys (and Girls)
This year alone has seen a number of incredible races. In January XDC had it's second race at the Zappos HQ in Las Vegas, which took place the same week as CES.
The Track for XDC2 was more proximity, and show. There were large screens to show live feed, and share social media pictures. For the final, there was an audience of 500 people in attendance, which were able to participate in the race by voting by applause for the the freestyle pilot they enjoyed watching the most. It also ushered in one of the hottest course trends in FPV, the glowing gates created by FPV LighTrax, which is admittedly a stunning visual for any audience.
At the end of January, I attended Flight Night, a race presented by ThunderDrone Racing. Although it was a single night event, it was full of production value not usually seen in FPV Racing.
Then of course, came the announcement of an international race that claimed it would change the sport of FPV; The World Drone Prix in Dubai.
Following the World Drone Prix were races in caves, multi-day FPV LighTrax courses for nationals qualifiers, and the integration of two prominant FPV organizations, IDRA and the Drone Worlds - Drone Nationals by Rotor Sports. This year the Drone Nationals will be held in New York City in August, at Governors Island and will be broadcasted live on ESPN, which is a huge change from last years race in Sacramento, CA. The Drone Worlds will take place in Hawaii in October, on Kualoa Ranch.
The Mountain Dew sponsored DR1 Race was held at the end of June, bringing household brands to FPV Racing.
The race was an invitational, which included twelve top FPV pilots, and was shot for release on a cable network.
In recent months, FPV has captured the attention of major media outlets, such as 60 Minutes Sports.
There was also a CorridorDigital You Tube video that features the flying talents of FPV pilots Chad Nowak and Steele Davis, through their show Rotor Riot. The video has gained nearly 2 Million views.
Do I need to mention that it's just July....
Who is Actually Winning
Like many things that experience rapid growth, there are also some growing pains. The Drone World Prix which initially sent the FPV world a flutter with a one million dollar prize went through several race, and prize restructures. It went from an invitational, to a race with a video entry qualifier, something that had not been done before in FPV racing. The one million dollar prize turned to a 250K prize for the winner, with smaller prizes spread out to ranking pilots in the race, and freestyle competitions. The World Drone Prix also required pilots come in teams, so most pilots split their prize, which left winning pilots with much much less than what the promotional videos had touted.
Instead of all teams having their accommodations paid for when it was an invitational, teams in the top 20 would have their travel expenses reimbursed. Four months later, some of those top 20 teams have still not received checks from the World Drone Prix for what they had to pay out of pocket for hotel, and travel costs. With pilots receiving less than a months notice that they had qualified for the race, for most teams travel was booked at a premium. People looking in may assume that pilots are being taken care of by large race organizations, and pilots are not ones to speak out publicly against an organization if they have not been compensated, which leaves an illusion of a grand race.
For other big events, pilots are given prize money if they place, or (in one known case), an appearance fee, which pilots had to use to put towards their accommodations, which left some of them with less money then when they came. Some pilots have their travel paid for by sponsors, but the pilots that don't have those types of sponsorships have to attend the larger races on their own dime to compete with the best, and with the hope that a win may open doors to more lucrative opportunities. There have been instances where prize money has taken over six months or more to make it to the pilots.
So with a growing industry that includes big RC manufactures, corporate sponsorships, and pilot sponsorships, who is walking away with the best deal. Although the number is growing, it is very rare to find a pilot that is able to make a living from racing alone, with no other source of income. As races get larger, and destinations get further away, who is making sure that the heart of FPV, the pilots, are receiving fair treatment for what they are giving? With no managers or agents, pilots are left to negotiate their own terms. The current group of elite pilots, may at some point need to set the standard for how pilots are paid for their work, including use of their footage, to consultation and appearance fees, and travel costs. In time, sponsorships may include money, and not just free products.
As it transitions from park meet-ups and fun flys, to a lucrative money making sport, it will be interesting to see the people and companies that will come out on top as the true money makers. Will FPV race organizers see the profit? Will the product manufactures see the most reward? Will the pilots see their fair share of the pie? Only time will tell. But in the meantime, regardless of what happens, we can only hope that the fun, community, spirit, and innovation of the FPV community is never overshadowed by the money.