AFP Ramsbury, United Kingdom
It’s like you’re a bird,” says 16-year-old drone-racing champion Luke Bannister as he whizzes his quadcopter through the air with astonishing precision.
As drone use proliferates around the world, first-person view (FPV) racing is really taking off — rather than watching the craft from the ground, the pilot puts on a headset and navigates with a real-time view from the camera mounted on board.
Drones are playing a growing part in everyday life, from parcel deliveries to video shoots, farming and security, so perhaps it was only a matter of time before they made their debut in the world of sport. FPV competitions pit pilots against each other on race tracks, each competing as if they were physically sat in a cockpit.
With his goggles in place, Bannister, a British schoolboy who goes by the pseudonym ‘BanniUK’, is practising his skills at a park in Ramsbury, a picturesque village in Wiltshire in rural southwest England.
With a characteristic waspish buzz, the small polycarbonate drone whizzes around a series of gates and obstacles that Bannister has set up. Most racing models are quadcopters, which have four propellers and are capable of reaching speeds topping 100 kilometres (60 miles) per hour. Each drone typically costs between $250-$375 (230-350 euros) with the headset another $320-£435 (300-400 euros).
“When you put the goggles on it’s like you’re in the drone,” says the youngster, wearing a tracksuit and body-warmer. “It’s an amazing experience. It could be compared to flying super-low and super-fast in a fighter jet. It’s really exciting, and sort of like an extension of your body.”
Bannister first got into aerial acrobatics at the age of 10, using a radio-controlled polystyrene biplane. Then, at 11, he became the darling of his local model aircraft club, where he built his own planes and became their youngest pilot. A few years later, he discovered the joys of FPV racing.
And things really took off when he won the glitzy World Drone Prix in Dubai in March last year, the world’s biggest drone race. Set against the Dubai skyline, the futuristic-looking racetrack is full of neon lights and has many features in common with motor racing: hairpin bends, pit stops — for changing batteries, live onboard footage and commentators.
Wearing the colours of his XBlades Racing team, Bannister scooped the $250,000 (235,000-euro) top prize. “He made his name in Dubai,” Vincent Sergere, from the French specialist website Course-de-drone.fr, said, describing Bannister’s flying technique as minimalistic.
“He has a very direct style as a pilot. You get the impression that he doesn’t ask himself many questions, that he really gets straight to the point. The most difficult thing will be to keep his place” in a rapidly-growing sport, he said.
Still at school, Bannister lives an unusual daily life, dividing his free time between practice, competitions and working on his drones. He is cultivating a presence on social media and maintains a YouTube channel where he shows off his aerobatic skills.
“I want to.. enjoy myself, have fun with my friends, mess around, have some good racing, and fly to the best of my ability,” he says.
But there is also schoolwork to be done, something this lively, ambitious teenager is careful not to neglect.
“I have to balance my schoolwork and my drone racing,” he admits after a practice session while walking back to his workshop which is filled with rotors, batteries and wires. “I spend the majority of my time on schoolwork” to get the best possible marks.
All with one goal in mind: to fly, one day, for real. “The sport is expanding at a rapid rate right now, but it’s a bubble so it could burst or it could keep expanding,” he says. “So we’ll see where it goes, but I’d like to go to university and become a pilot after that.”
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