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So, you want to be a drone racer?

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In sporting terms, the “bat and ball” has traditionally reigned supreme, whether it’s the leather nut and traditional willow of cricket or the fluorescent ball that ping pongs from lacquered string to lacquered string in tennis.

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Now, however, a new kind of sport is putting the bat and ball on the back seat and relying on radio-controlled quadcopters to generate buzz.

Welcome to drone racing, a new kind of visceral entertainment for a generation in thrall to computers.

Having sprung up Down Under in 2014, drone racing is in its infancy. Despite this, it has spread like wildfire and recently arrived on African soil. The demand has facilitated a slew of leagues to regulate this spectacular brand of vehicular action.

But how does it work?

First you have the drones themselves: mini helicopters powered by rotors and tethered to a remote control situated in the hands of a pilot. The pilots wear goggles attached to a video camera aboard the drone for a first-person view of where the machine is going; put it this way, with the goggles in pace, it’s as if you’re actually on board.

Next, racers line up at the start line and compete for prizes in front of seated crowds, all while television screens provide a first-person view of the pilot’s movements. The sport takes the immediacy of video gaming and gives it a real world twist and the resulting concoction is no less exhilarating than bat and ball sports or races performed in conventional cars.

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Drone racing to feature at the Cape Argus SportShow

To illustrate its growing appeal, drone racing will be one of the feature events at the Cape Argus SportShow later this month and we chatted to event organiser Stephan Jooste about the decision to put such an emphasis on a lesser-known entity.

“Look, drone racing is one of the fastest-growing sports the world over and at the cutting edge,” Jooste says.

“What’s surprising is how well it works in front of a crowd. Watching these drones being piloted through a real-world race track is thrilling stuff.”

Jooste is a fan, which is why the SportShow is dedicating considerable resources to showing it off. 

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It begins with the track itself, situated in an outdoor arena at the SportShow with an obstacle course of hurdles to overcome. Pilots need razor-sharp reflexes to make chicane turns, navigate narrow corridors and outstrip one another to the finish line.

“The speed is something to behold, as is the skill,” Jooste says. “It’s thrilling to watch and a real display of aerial trickery. That’s one of the reasons we’ve got freestyle exhibitions planned to wow the crowds.”

What’s more, the event will place a premium on giving kids a feel for a sport they’re unlikely to have encountered before. Jooste’s team have devised an indoor obstacle course to give young pilots a taste of what it’s like to pilot these unmanned aircraft.

“New technology can help all sports improve; but it can introduce entirely new ways of competing as well. We’ve seen what DRS has done for cricket, tennis, rugby. Well, drone racing is a product of our times and something we should embrace too.”

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The Cape Argus SportShow will take place from 26-28 March at Sandringham in the Western Cape. And while Jooste promises all the bat and ball favourites, he reserves a special place in his heart for a brand of vehicular action few South Africans will have sampled before, but many will soon become familiar with.

“The ball and ball isn’t going anywhere, but there’s more than enough room for new contenders.”

 

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