Inside India's budding drone racing community

What's tiny, flies at 120kph and can perform acrobatics in the air?
A racing drone, of course.

Contrary to what many think, drones are not completely illegal in India. In fact, there's a budding drone racing community in the country, flying drones at breakneck speeds and slowly making careers out of the sport.

As with many things in technology today, India isn't that far behind the world either. Sure, there's work to be done, governments to convince and more people to onboard. Yet, Karan Kamdar, the man behind 1 Martian Way, the company that created the Indian Drone Racing League (IDRL), says his community has been growing fast.

The IDRL began just under two years ago. Kamdar's community was slow at first but has reached over 800 members now. The organisation has tie-ups with colleges, including IITs, BITS Pilani and more. It gets 15-25 participants in each race, most of which are held between October and April.

What is drone racing?

Like any race, drone races are about speed, timing and competing against one another. However, no drone race is complete without the first person view. That's why most drone racing events are prefixed by an "FPV".

Unlike other races, a drone pilot doesn't see the world in front of him/her. They see what the drone sees, through tiny cameras fitted atop the drone. The pilot wears a head-mounted display, looking at the live stream from the drone's camera. That's all they have to steer the drone.

There are also online events for drone racers. In these, pilots hook their controllers to computers and a software simulates a real-world drone race. The pilot chooses the drone they want and still get the first person view. They clear simulated obstacles and race against each other, while the software calculates the time they take to finish a course, determining the winner.

Ritvik Nesargi with his head-mounted display, controller and drone

The FPV element is what drives many pilots. Siddharth Nayak, a.k.a FlyingSid pegs this feeling as the reason for why people like racing drones. The video below is one Nayak made while flying his drones. Nayak has been a professional drone racer for about two years now, although he still does it as a hobby and not his primary source of income.

The tracks for these races include obstacles that pilots have to manoeuvre. Currently, Indian drone races use football nets to make "gates" that pilots have to fly their drones through. As Nayak explains, avoiding and manoeuvring around the obstacles is necessary, not just to win races but to protect one's drone.


Racing drones fly at 120kph (and even faster), so a sudden crash can be devastating on the drone itself. And the pilot's pocket.

Equipment

To drone pilots, as with any sportsperson, the equipment is important. While most drone-related coverage in India centres around companies like DJI and their intelligent drones, the ones used for racing are custom made. Pro drone pilots like Nayak and Ritvik Nesargi build their own drones, with custom fitted motors, controllers and more. Nayak and Nesargi are two of India's top drone racing pilots.

The cost of making a drone depends on the parts used. Nayak, who has been doing this for about two years, and is one of India's premiere pilots, says he and his brethren have lakhs of rupees on equipment already.


You need some technical know-how to become a drone pilot. IDRL's Kamdar says pro pilots are differentiated from amateurs not just by skill, but by how well they understand the engineering. Their understanding of motors, controllers and what would best suit their drones can differentiate the best from the rest.

An entry-level drone can be built for as little as Rs. 10,000, but if you want to race against serious pros, it's going to be expensive. When you're learning, you'll likely wreck your drone often, making and remaking it with each new step. There are also no drone racing tracks available in the country, so you'll have to make one for yourself.

Nayak says he's bought some football nets for himself and he goes to parks and other open areas to practice.

Easier said than done

That said, practising has its own challenges. When organisations like IDRL are involved, dealing with regulations becomes a tad easier. However, both Nesargi and Nayak have to inform the police every time they decide to fly their drones in public.

The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) allows nano-drones (drones that weigh under 250 grams) to be flown without registration. However, Nesargi and Nayak still have to inform their local police stations whenever they practise in public.


Nayak, Nesargi and Kamdar agree that for drone racing to be an accepted sport, the regulations need to be simpler. In fact, Kamdar says the government confuses between racing drones and regular drones. Unlike other drones, racing drones record only while racing, fly for only three minutes at a time and can't rise more than a few feet in the air. They're all about racing and manoeuvrability.

Drones are also allowed to fly within educational institutions, as long as they're for educational purposes. Nayak says drone pilots have a responsibility to not fly over crowded areas and they should respect that too.

Private support

The IDRL, for the longest time, has been the only real place for drone racers to get competition. To keep afloat, IDRL now charges membership fees and sells merchandise (like jerseys) right now. It also charges colleges small sums for arranging drone racing competitions at various campuses.

IDRL has established tie-ups with companies in Korea, perhaps the country where drone racing is most widely accepted. It also has tie-ups in the US and more. Kamdar says he will increase international efforts when the IDRL's member-base reaches around 2000.


That said, the IDRL was instrumental in sending Nesargi to the Eurogamer Expo in the UK recently. In turn, Nesargi won races there, ending up in the finals of the event.

And all that is now being supplemented by Smaaash, a gaming and entertainment company in India. You may have seen their outlets, spread over Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad, Gurgaon and other cities.

Smaaash's establishments have so far been known for embracing virtual reality and other future-facing technologies for entertainment. The company just started its own Drone Racing league in Mumbai over the weekend.

However, the weekend event is just the beginning. Shripal Morakhia, the founder of Smaaash says he plans to make it an international level league. There's a larger event planned for November, where Morakhia will be inviting international drone racers to compete against Indian pros.

The first event saw amateurs race against each other, while pros battled it out on their own terms too. The amateur and pro races were separate, but Smaaash's efforts could bring more interested parties into the community.

On the sidelines of Smaaash's event, the company creates drone-based games. The Drone Castle Race is a game that emulates Mario, with jumping drones clearing obstacles and racing against each other. On the other hand, Drone Soccer is a game of football played with drones instead of humans. Smaaash plans to incorporate these into its establishments around the country eventually.

Making a career

But much like any sport, private support can help open doors. When asked about drone racing as a career, Nayak said you don't do it for the money, you do it for passion. While Nayak has earned from his escapades, he doesn't see it as a viable career just yet.

Neither does Nesargi, who also races drones as a hobby. Nesargi is currently a student at the Maharashtra Institute of Engineering in Pune. He says most of a drone racers income comes from prize money, which is not aplenty right now.


Smaaash is offering a prize pool of Rs. 3,20,000 to the winners. There will be three winners in the pro races, with Rs. 1,00,000, Rs. 50,000 and Rs. 25,000 to the first, second and third positions, respectively. (Update: Nesargi and Nayak took the first and second spots, respectively.)

IDRL also offers prize money at its events. However, the cost of equipment, travel, stay etc. usually cover the income from most events, including Smaaash's.

Nesargi says you can make about Rs. 30,000 if you're regularly winning events. Lower rung competitors can still get travel and stay expenses, but none of that is enough to make a legitimate profession out of drone racing just yet. This is what private players can solve.

In 2016, the World Drone Prix in Dubai had a million dollar prize pool. The winner, 15-year-old Luke Bannister from the UK, won $250,000 for his efforts, the biggest ever prize in drone racing at the time. If 1 Martian Way, Smaaash and future entrants are able to build enough interest, similar returns could be arranged.


Opportunity to grow

Internationally, drone racing is quickly becoming a legitimate profession. While it's not really a large community yet, the sport has a certain thrill to it, just like professional wrestling. Smaaash's races are going to be held at night, for which drones are fitted with LEDs. While it doesn't change the racing aspect for the pilots, it's more flashy and makes for a better watch.

The fact that there are so many drones and AI companies already means sponsorships should never be a problem. And to top it all, Indian drone pilots certainly do not lack the technical know-how required to do well.

The drone racing community in India has been growing steadily, but it has picked up in the last year. Smaaash's event is one of the first big private investments in the sport and racers do hope there are more to come. It's as Nayak says, there's a long way to go, but there's definitely some potential here.
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