Teen wins world's first World Drone Prix
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A team led by a 15-year-old pilot from England took first place March 12 in the World Drone Prix. It is a new contest that hopes to take flight both in the Mideast country of the United Arab Emirates and with sports fans worldwide.
Luke Bannister of Somerset led Tornado X-Blades Banni UK to win a $250,000 purse. The money was part of $1 million in prizes handed out in the inaugural edition of this race. Meanwhile, a UAE 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. And, of course, drone flying.
"We are trying to bring the future closer to us," said Mohammed al-Gergawi. He is 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 were covered by goggles. The goggles allowed them to watch a feed from a camera on their drone. The drones raced on a course behind them. They zipped along a white track that occasionally reached up to pinch at the speeding aircraft for 12 laps. The skyscrapers of the Dubai Marina could be seen behind them.
The pilots wore the white racing jumpsuits familiar to Formula One auto racing. Racers have to worry about what's above and below them as they fly their drones, said Zachry Thayer. He is a 25-year-old pilot for Team Big Whoop of Fort Collins, Colorado. 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 that were flown resembled Erector Set creations. One team used 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 650-yard track.
Racers had to take at least one pit stop in the race. Their crews leaned down to change out batteries. Pilots also had to decide whether to take short cuts. Sometimes they saw their drones crash into the ground or into each other to the shouts of spectators.
Dubai was once a sleepy desert port city. Now it is home to the world's tallest building and the long-haul airline Emirates. The city has embraced drones. Dubai's ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, has given the $1 million Drones for Good Award over the last two years.
Government agencies across the larger United Arab Emirates, eager to be seen using new technology, use drones. Their activities are as varied as inspecting buildings to calming a frantic Abu Dhabi window-washer in 2014 who was caught 10 stories up. His scaffolding had gotten stuck. Small hobby drones for sale sit on display in electronics stores in the country's many luxury malls. And Al-Dhafra Air Base hosts some of the U.S. military's unmanned aircraft flying missions over Iraq and Syria that target the Islamic State group.
But the proliferation of hobbyist drone pilots has caused problems here and elsewhere in the world. Dubai International Airport is the world's busiest for international travel. It has seen drones fly into its airspace and halt its flights.
Since February, drone owners have been required to register with the UAE's General Civil Aviation Authority. Authorities also ban hobbyists from putting cameras or lasers on their drones.
"It is not merely a flying game. (It's) a sport that requires mental focus and accuracy to enable users to harmonize mental commands and hand movements to fly their drone," Saif Mohammed al-Suwaidi, the aviation authority's director-general, said in a statement at the time.
That focus, as well as having competitors fly an aircraft they're not actually in, makes many compare the sport to that of competitive video game playing. Already, so-called eSports revenue was nearly $750 million worldwide in 2015, with sponsorships and advertising accounting for $578 million. That is according to the New York-based gaming-research firm SuperData.
"Obviously, there's a crossover with gaming, as you can see with the HD goggles," said Nigel Tomlinson of Manchester, United Kingdom, who was the manager of Bannister's team.
Those millions, as well as Dubai's determination to always be ahead, likely inspired authorities to announce the World Future Sports Games, tentatively scheduled for Dec. 28-30, 2017. Officials hope to hold the games once every two years after that.