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Manned drone racing: get ready for it

Drone racing is a new sport that is rapidly evolving raising unexpected questions. And it has just begun! Image credit: RedBull.com

There has been an exponential growth in drones since they have become affordable for the mass market. Their use as an additional digital camera to complement, from a completely different perspective, the one in the smartphone has created a killer application.  Including commercial drones and industry drones the 2020 market is expected to reach 100 B$. With this kind of figures you can understand the push on tech evolution.

The mass market is interesting, both in terms of pieces sold (close to 8 millions in 2020) and in terms of technology evolution drive, particularly for enhanced AI for flight control, obstacle avoidance and tracking (to have the drone following and filming you as you ski down a slope…).

Now that drones are being considered to offer public transportation (something that has already been demonstrated, big companies are entering the market, and that will likely see the first commercial use by the end of this year /beginning of 2021) there are thoughts on organising manned drone race, as sort of a Formula 1 in 3 dimension.

This can be an interesting evolution for the potential it would have in accelerating the evolution of technology. Interestingly, there are no race for airplanes (there are exhibition and aerobatics show but safety dictates that when flying the point is not to get there first but to land in one piece…) so it is intriguing to imagine a manned drone race.

As shown in the video clip, a drone has much better maneuverability than airplanes (it can even stand still and hoover) and in a way the presence of multiple propellers increases its reliability. At the same time controlling a drone requires plenty of software (the slight difference in lift created by different speed of the propellers is just too sensitive to be directly controllable by a pilot) and we have seen the impressive growth of artificial intelligence in today’s mass market drones making them easy to fly (I received a drone sometime ago as present and I was really surprise being able to fly it from the start!).

So today many are complaining about the electronics in Formula 1 cars that is supposedly taking over much of the skill of the pilot, in some cases with the pilot and engineers following the telemetry having the role of interacting with the software, rather than with the mechanic of the car. I have the feeling that this will become even worse with a manned drone. Already many drones are on autopilot, make the 3d track complex and the probability of having some sort of autopilot taking the rein is even greater. At this point one would have to wonder why having a manned drone race and not just have fun in seeing a fully autonomous drone race. That will be a race among geeks’ brain, those that are developing the software controlling the drone.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.

One comment

  1. Thanks for the interesting article Roberto! The first companies are working on manned drone racing, and interesting, they look quit similar to 1950s’ Formula One.