Near the start of a race

Langley flyers take part in drone races

Is the sport of the future virtual-reality quadcopter piloting?

Six racers sit in plastic folding chairs to one side of the arena, hands on controllers, eyes concealed behind virtual reality goggles.

At a signal from the race organizers, drones rise from the start line. Four plastic propellers whine at each corner as the machines start through the course above the floor of the Cloverdale Agriplex.

On Sunday, Feb. 5, the West Coast Drone Racing League held the second of its season’s races.

Drone racing is a relatively new sport that attracts a host of hobbyists and enthusiasts who are literally building it themselves.

Jason Guy, a Langley-Surrey area resident, started out using a drone to take some interesting aerial photos.

“I built an aerial photography rig to take it on my road trips, on my camping trips,” Guy said.

Then the avid skateboarder saw drone racing videos online, and was hooked.

Guy’s favourite variation on drone competition is actually freestyle flying, which he sees as similar to skateboarding.

“You do flips and rolls, and you shoot through small gaps,” Guy said. “It’s like skateboarding in the air.”

But he’s happy to race as well.

In the league’s races, the drones begin at one end of the arena, and then have to follow a marked path that winds above the concrete floor.

The path leads the drones in slaloms around flags, and through low arches, or up through fabric hoops set more than six feet off the floor.

“You have to hit each gate,” said Eric Milewski. He’s one of three local drone racers who is part of Team Canada, a six-member strong group that has qualified for international competitions. They’ve worn red and white jerseys while abroad.

“We went to Hawaii, we went to New York,” said Milewski.

Part of the fun of drone racing is that in “first person” racing, the drone’s pilot sees through a camera on the drone itself.

“It feels like you’re flying it,” Milewski said.

The Port Coquitlam resident is in his second year of racing and, like his teammates Paul Baur and Andrew Meyer, he went to the Canadian nationals in 2015.

The team, like most other competitors, spent a lot of time adjusting the drones in the pit area to one side of the course.

“If you want to compete, you have to build a custom rig,” said Guy.

He taught himself how to build a drone – he’d never done electronics work before – through online tutorials and getting advice from online forums.

Despite the DIY aspect of the sport, it’s not cheap. Guy says it can cost a couple of thousand dollars to get into, though that still makes it cheaper than competitive auto racing or mountain biking.

It is, however, safer.

“You can do a lot of things,” Guy said. “You’re basically just damaging your quadcopter.”

The drones do take a beating. Event organizer Ryan Stephan said there can be a trade off between speed and manoeuvrability.

In the heats, numerous drones crash. The race sometimes goes to the hare, sometimes to a tortoise that plods its way carefully through the course without slamming into the floor or obstacles.

The participants are hoping that drone racing can find a bigger audience. Guy thinks it’s on the verge of becoming the next big thing.

Whatever happens with racing and freestyle events, he hopes to make a career with drones – doing anything from bridge inspections to search and rescue and land surveying – using the agile flying machines.