Dubai: A team led by a 15-year-old pilot from England took first place today in the World Drone Prix, a new contest hoping to take flight both in this Mideast country fascinated by the technology and with sports fans worldwide.
Luke Bannister of Somerset led Tornado X-Blades Banni UK to win a USD 250,000 purse, part of USD 1 million in prizes handed out in the inaugural edition of this race as a Cabinet-level minister announced the start of the World Future Sports Games in December 2017.
Those contests next year will include robotic swimming, running, wrestling and car racing, as well as drone flying, as this city of futuristic skylines yearns to be ahead of the curve.
“We are trying to bring the future closer to us,” said Mohammed al-Gergawi, the United Arab Emirates’ minister for Cabinet affairs.
At the World Drone Prix, four pilots at a time sat in racing-style seats, their eyes covered by goggles allowing them to watch a feed from a camera on their drone. The drones raced on a course behind them, zipping along a white track that occasionally reached up to pinch at the speeding aircraft for 12 laps with the skyscrapers of the Dubai Marina behind them.
The pilots wore the white racing jumpsuits familiar to Formula One, but racers have to worry about what’s above and below them as they fly their drones, said Zachry Thayer, a 25-year-old pilot for Team Big Whoop of Fort Collins, Colorado.
But the onboard camera puts a racer into the action like nothing else, he said.
“That’s what’s making it explode,” Thayer said. “Anybody can go out and all of a sudden, they’re Superman,”
The crafts flown more resembled Erector Set creations, with one team using a cheap disposable lighter to solder a wire. The races themselves looked at home in the science-fiction film “Tron” – glowing fluorescent lights guiding the way around the 591-meter (650-yard) track.
Racers had to take at least one pit stop in the race, with crews leaning down to change out batteries.
Pilots also had to decide whether to take short cuts, sometimes seeing their drones crash into the ground or into each other to the shouts of spectators.
Dubai, once a sleepy desert port city now home to the world’s tallest building and the long-haul airline Emirates, has embraced drones.
Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, has given the USD 1 million Drones for Good Award over the last two years.