Photo Andre Eksteen
  • Two students, a financial planner, and a 14-year-old farm boy from Caledon will be the first South Africans to compete in a world drone racing championship in Shenzhen, China.
  • Pilots can experience the thrill of 200km/h speed from the safety and comfort of their camping chairs.
  • But the experience is so real many beginner pilots suffer from vertigo their first time under the goggles.

It's one of the stranger of group of sportsmen you're likely to see: a financial planner, Devon Barnett; an accounting student, Luke Bakke; an electrical-engineering student, Ruivan Branco; and 14-year-old farm boy Jadon Churchman. 

But later this year they will compete as a national team at the first-ever FAI World Drone Racing Championship to held in Shenzhen, China, in November.

They call their sport first-person view (FPV) drone racing.

“My cousin flies remote control helicopters, and he showed me a YouTube video of a group of guys [drone] racing through a forest. It reminded me of Star Wars pod racing, and I’ve been hooked since that,” said Barnett, who started racing only two years ago, and is now ranked top in SA.

Devon Barnett. Photo supplied

Thanks to small on-board cameras, drones can broadcast first-person-views to pilots wearing VR goggles. You can experience the thrill of speeds of 200km/h or more from the safety and comfort of a camping chair.

It’s harder than it looks. The experience is so real many beginner pilots suffer from vertigo following their first session under the goggles.

Pilots race over a 800m track with a diversity of gates made for great spectator appeal.

The sport is quickly gaining popularity in South African geek culture, says Alan Ball, owner of Flying Robot and co-chair of FlyFPVSA, who builds racing drones in South Africa.

“It’s really big in countries like South Korea, where there is a strong culture of esports and gamers are looking for an outdoor experience with technology,” said Ball.

47 pilots competed in this year’s Fly FPV SA Racing League, a number that Ball says has increased by 60% over the last two years.

The pilots are looking for a sponsor to help them on their journey to gold. Contact committee@flyfpvsa.co.za 

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