FPV Drone Racing: What is it and how to get started!
Not long ago, drones fit into one of two categories: toys and war machines. However, a lot has changed since those early days. As technology began to allow drones more capability, hobbyists flocked and found more and more uses for them. One such use took form of FPV drone racing.
Today, you can find drones in a surprising number of places. While they still exist on the battlefield and as toys, they are increasingly being used in professional applications like industry, agriculture, survey, and the like.
Even for a consumer, the development of more refined drone technology has allowed their use to expand from a simple toy to a device for exploration to now where they are used to race in organized leagues. Of course, that means you need to know your stuff if you are going to get involved in a hobby that is anything but.
That is why we have taken the time to put together an article to educate you on everything you need to enter the racing drone arena. From the basics to the builds, we will walk through the important specs and facts as well as provide a list of the top three drones for different levels.
Check out this video to get an idea of what drone racing is all about!
Check out these great racing quads on Amazon!
FPV Racing Drone Basics
Racing drones differ from their more pedestrian cousins in a number of ways. Not only are they capable of accomplishing far more amazing aerial feats than simple beginner or photography drones but they are often constructed out of much higher quality materials.
FPV or First Person View racing refers to piloting a racing drone using either an FPV monitor or FPV goggles.
Still, all good racing quadcopters have a few things in common. Here are some of the components you will find on any FPV racing drone. If a drone does not have at least all of these components, it is probably not truly suitable for racing--at least not in leagues.
Electronic Speed Controllers or ESCs
Radio Transmitter with Receiver
FPV Video transmitter and receiver
Lithium-polymer (LiPo) Battery Pack
Some of these components are more important than others, but none of them can be overlooked. Keep in mind, the quality of the actual drone is vital, but if its interface is subpar, no amount of power or high-tech parts will help it perform any better.
Any serious racing drone league will use tracks that are too large and winding to fly from a stationary position and watch from a distance. There may be the occasional NASCAR style circular track race, but more often than not, top level racing leagues will use tracks that are too demanding and the competition too high to permit a winning drone to be flown without the driver being able to see from the drone’s point of view.
While not “technically” part of the drone itself, the camera and goggles, are equally important if you want to race and cannot be used to cut costs--and cost they do. Similarly, the radio and video transmitter and receivers may be an overlooked factor when exciting specs like lift, speed, and maneuverability exist. However, poor signal transfer will sink your chances at victory just as quickly as a weak motor.
Ready-to-Fly (RTF) Racing Drones:
As the name implies, these drone require little fuss. Generally, they come fully assembled, though they may require the assembly of some parts. Still, it is easy to find a drone that requires little more effort than turning it on and watching it go.
These drones are suitable for beginners and intermediate fliers. And while intermediate fliers may be itching to build their own drone, the standardization is a blessing in disguise. It is a very different thing to know how to fly a drone with precision and skill and knowing how to build one that can compete at the highest levels of competition.
Another major advantage RTF drones provide beginners and intermediate fliers is a greatly reduced price tag. Drones built from scratch with the best components can easily reach over $1000. Unless you have buckets of disposable income sitting around or know for a fact that this will be a part of your life for years to come, it is best not to make such an investment.
For the intermediate flier who will not be reasoned, there are different degrees of pre-built drones that allow you to customize or upgrade their components a little at a time. This allows you become familiar and skilled with the increasing capabilities of a more advanced drone over a period of time. The performance between a solid RTF drone and a top of the line ATF drone can be stark, and a flier who is not yet ready can easily crash thousands of dollars into the dirt.
Assemble-to-Fly (ATF) Racing Drones:
Once you have mastered the art of flying drone with exceptional speed and maneuverability, the next step is to learn how to customize one and push your skills even further. The only way to do this is by building your own drone. However, the knowledge necessary to accomplish this task is vastly different than what you need to know to fly. It is entirely possible that someone could fly a sponsored ATF drone without knowing how to build it themselves.
Of course, at the highest levels of competition, even minor adjustments can mean the difference between first and second. If a flier has a top of the line drone that they do not understand on a component level, they may very well be losing seconds because the drone is not perfectly tuned to their style of flight.
That is why the best fliers in the most competitive leagues generally learn all there is to know about drones and build their own. Unfortunately, this requires multiple types of investment: time, effort, and money. The first two can often be found if you are dedicated enough, but the last will almost always be a concern. Specifically, there is never enough. That is why the best fliers pore over the parts of their machines and ensure that every dollar spent is spent wisely.
Below is an example of an ATF drone starter kit
Best Racing Quadcopters
The Vortex 250 Pro is a thing a of beauty. Able to perform maneuvers that would make lesser drones sick to their stomach, the Vortex is able to compete in legitimate leagues at the highest level and win.
Immersion RC’s great Fusion flight controller is now in its second generation, and the processor shows no signs of slowing down. However, it is not in speed where the Fusion will reap its fliers the most gains but in maneuverability. The F3 flight controllers allows the Vortex to turn on a dime in ways that will give some of its pilots motion sickness. While that prospect is not desirable, what you can do with it in the field is amazing.
Coupled with this is a provided camera mount for a 3/4 GoPro. While this may seem simply like a feather in the cap, it provides an excellent quality camera for FPV goggles. Depending on the race, your ability to observe and react to the conditions of the track will heavily determine your success--especially for indoor tracks with obstacles or complex rotorcrosses.
Check out this awesome video of the Vortex Pro in action! Careful you might just want one after watching!
The Vortex also comes with a suite of custom Pro-tuning options with the ability to download different tuning options from other users. Moreover, the software allows you to make adjustments on the fly which can make a big difference if you are given the chance at a practice run or are part of a multi-race tournament.
The Vortex has a NexWaveRF 5.8GHz video transmitter. This transmitter offers 40 channels of support and is compatible with any 5.8Ghz A/V RX. However, the best part of this transmitter is the Dynamic Power Control which reduces the interference by other pilots. Moreover, the transmitter is compatible with many of the top channels out today. All these factors combined make it in our opinion one of the best racing quadcopters you can buy.
The TBS Vendetta 240 compares well to the Vortex, though, ultimately it is close but no cigar. Granted, you are going to pay a bit more for the Vortex, but the difference between the two in performance does not necessarily seem like the cost reflects this.
Still, this is a solid racing drone that is perfect for intermediate flyers, though the ceiling is a bit lower. Where the Vortex allows you to develop up to the point of advanced and maybe even at the early stages of that level, the Vendetta starts in the intermediate level and stays there.
That being said, for an intermediate drone, the Vendetta offers a lot of value. $500 might seem like a high price, but it is actually about right at this level. However, the component quality of the Vendetta make this a great investment.
The motors are of a Cobra make--a manufacturer of drone motors that are known even among the custom build crowd. Moreover, they can achieve speeds of up to 45mph which more than fast enough at this skill level.
Check out the Vendetta in action in the video below!
One thing the Vendetta does extremely well is transmit video. Since the intermediate level is where you will generally start to hone your maneuvering skills with the FPV system, it helps to have signal transmission that can allow your progress to build as smoothly as possible.
Something that the Vendetta tops the Vortex in are amps pushed to the rotors where the Vendetta can push 50 percent more amps. This is important for lift and maneuverability, but it also contributes to the ghastly short battery life of the Vendetta which does not have a flight time long enough for longer tracks.
- The Cobra CM2204/2300kV motors are an excellent quality component and allow a good top speed of 45mph
- At 410g without a battery, the Vendetta is actually a touch lighter than the Vortex without being too light to handle gusts of wind
- The body is entirely carbon fiber which allows it to take a licking and keep on ticking; though, it is about half as thick as the Vortex
- Completely RTF so you do not have spend hours putting the thing together. Just strap on an R/C receiver, tune it up, and go.
- The modular design allows you to replace parts broken in crash quickly and on the fly
- Flight time is a bit short for some of the races in top leagues will which keep this out of those tracks regardless the competition
- Despite its “built to grow” advertisement, the Vendetta is squarely an intermediate drone and should not be the first drone beginners try to fly
The VIFLY is a revelation, a breath of fresh air in a market teeming with models all vying to be the best. The VIFLY is not that kind of drone, but it also is not trying to be. This is a drone that was pretty much custom made for beginners who are serious about the hobby and ready to move on from cheap toys.
While it is not suitable for many classes of drone racing, the VIFLY packs a big punch in a small package. In its size category, however, it is fully capable of competing--and winning. Where the Vortex is 250mm and the Vendetta is 240mm, the VIFLY comes in at a svelte 220mm.
The component’s casing made from carbon fiber, but the body is surrounded by tough plastic. Moreover, other exposed parts of the drone are also protected with various materials--like the camera has a protective rubber cover. All of this defense is because the makers expect you to crash, something that is expected from beginners, and still be able to fly.
Due to the lower weight, the battery life of the VIFLY is commendable with between 6-8 minutes depending on whether it is powered by a 3S or 4S. This is plenty of time for even fairly long tracks and allows you the opportunity to practice more than the intermediate drones.
Check out this flight test of the VIFLY R220
The VIFLY is an RTF with limited to no customization options, but that is about what you would expect with a beginner drone. What thing you would not expect from a beginner drone is a top speed of 60mph. To be honest, this is actually a bit quick for a beginner and starts to step into the intermediate skillset.
However, the VIFLY is not really built to move at those speeds and maneuver well. Combine that with a tendency to get blown around by the wind and you have a drone that may have a bit too much under the hood for its own good. Of course, that just forces the pilot to develop speed control early, which is often a tough skill to learn when speed is so much fun--even if it kills.
- This is an excellent starter drone for beginners, ticking off a number of boxes to make learning challenging without being overwhelming
- Very doable price for an entry-level drone that will allow you to save for the next one before you master this one
- Its small size and light weight making learning how to control it much easier than some of the larger, more powerful drones
- The light weight also allows these drones to remain fairly durable even after crashing--despite not being fabricated entirely out of carbon fiber like the more expensive models
- The size and weight, while great for learning how to fly, leave these drones blowing in the wind--literally--as gusts can cause it to crash
- Exclusively a beginner drone that cannot take the next step to intermediate skills--though it will carry you through all the stages of beginner learning
As we can see,an FPV racing drone is far from the simple toy some people may believe it to be. They use cutting edge technology and are able to achieve feats of performance that will take the uninitiated by surprise.
Moreover, anyone looking to enter the racing drone field has a lot of catching up to do. Already a well-established hobby, racing drones are quickly pushing the boundaries of that word and will soon develop into a full-fledged, professional event.
For those you coming late to the party, you do not need to worry. There is still time to dive into this awesome past time before it strictly becomes the purview of professionals. However, that means you need to be willing to spend the time and money investing in a racing drone--if not more than one.
You should cut your teeth on a cheaper RTF drone while you learn the basics of controls. Once you have the fundamentals down, moving up in capability, but still staying within the RTF market, will allow you to develop world class skills. Finally, when you have mastered everything there is to know about drones, you are ready to build your own and enter the advanced rungs of the drone racing ladder.
With this guide, time, and capital, you too will soon be whizzing around the track, trying to beat your best time if not your opponent.