A teenager just won drone racing’s biggest ever prize

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Luke Bannister, a 15-year-old drone racing pilot from the UK, won the inaugural World Drone Prix in Dubai on Sunday. The race, held in the United Arab Emirates, had a $1 million total prize purse, and Bannister took home first place, earning himself $250,000 of that prize money.

The win highlights the massive increase in popularity of first-person-view drone racing, where pilots steer drones at high speeds using video goggles paired with a camera mounted on their drone. A year ago, at the first national drone racing event in the US—the Drone Nationals—the winner took home $25,000, and a year before that, the sport barely existed outside of sparse meet-ups of small groups of people from internet forums.

This past weekend, over 2,000 people showed up to watch the pilots race through the neon-packed course in Dubai, according to The Verge.

The race was organized under the supervision of Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum, the crown prince of Dubai, who chairs the city-state’s sports council. Dubai wants to create a racing league for drones—like a Formula 1 league for drones—with this weekend’s event being the inaugural race.

Bannister with his mom.
Bannister with his mom.
Image: AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili

The Sheikh and Dubai are not alone in trying to turn this burgeoning hobby into an actual sport. In January, a venture-backed startup called the Drone Racing League (DRL) launched, aiming to do much the same thing. The DRL held its first race in the Miami Dolphins’ American football stadium, and is planning to hold its next one in an abandoned shopping mall in Los Angeles. And the organizer of the Drone Nationals, Scot Refsland, is in the process of setting up a world competition, to be held in Hawaii in October.

It remains to be seen whether any of these groups will figure out the logistics of creating a new spectator sport from scratch, but in the meantime, it’s great fun to watch the increasingly over-the-top spectacles these races are becoming.

And with such young pilots winning major races, it feels a lot like the early days of other more established ”extreme” sports: Tony Hawk was also just 15 when he started competing professionally in skateboarding, and the Olympic gold medal-winning snowboarder Shaun White competed in his first professional sports event at the age of 13.