Drone racing is already hugely popular across the globe with big events starting over half a decade ago. The first Drone Racing World Championship took place in Shenzhen, China, back in 2018 and drew 128 competitors from 34 countries. It was won by a 17-year-old from Australia – Paul “Nurk” Nurkkala.
It's perhaps no surprise then that the next step-up from drone racing is also coming out of Australia. Replacing the unmanned, radio controlled air racers are Airspeeders – manned eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) vehicles which have been in development for over two years and are now in their fourth iteration.
Funding from two leading venture capital firms, Saltwater Capital and Jelix Ventures, has meant that development can not only continue, the first 'beta' season of Airspeeder racing is planned to take place before the year's out. Though the investors will have more than half an eye on the potential $1.5 trillion market that could evolve from eVTOL EV development...
Obviously, it's not ideal to create an up-scaled drone capable of around 120mph and put a test pilot in it to see what happens. Alauda, the company responsible for building the Airspeeders, flew its first working prototype – the Mk2 – unmanned and remote controlled in 2019. This proved the concept and paved the way for the Mk3 which is the middle ground between the unmanned version and the final version which is what pilots will actually race.
According to Automobilsport Alauda enlisted USAF and Martin Aviation test pilots to give the Mk3 a shakedown over the Mojave Desert in California. It worked, which has led to the Mk4, developed by the team in Australia as well as a new global commercial team based in London (chosen due to its access to the UK's EV powertrain industry and expertise in motorsport).
Matt Pearson, founder of Alauda and Airspeeder Racing League CEO, said: “The MK4, first shown as a concept in the summer of 2019 will be co-developed in the UK and South Australia, with the latter proving the perfect testing ground for both ground control and manned flights as the sport nears its inaugural ‘Beta Season'.
“This will include public manned test flights that will demonstrate Airspeeder’s potential to be the most exciting sport on the planet. The firm is poised to deliver this flight but exact timings will be dependent on the lifting of restrictions related to the current global health crisis.”
It looks like something from a video game (if anyone remembers Wipeout 2097 on PlayStation 1 you'll know what we're on about) and is purpose-built specifically for air racing. The pilot sits back under a streamlined canopy and has four 24kW motors with 32 inch propellers at his or her control. Powering these is a 500kW battery pack which offers 15 minutes of racing time and is quickly interchangeable.
All in, the Airspeeder weighs 250kg (minus pilot) which gives it a fat power-to-weight ratio and at full tilt will be doing somewhere in the region of 124mph at an average height of just 12 feet off the ground. Whilst this isn't far to fall, crashing is still a big concern, so the Airspeeders have anti-collision sensors built in which should keep pilots from banging into one another.
Now that the Mk4 is essentially ready to go, race testing will take place in the South Australian desert near to the firm's HQ in Adelaide just as soon as the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. The team is hoping that this will happen during the Australian summer, some-time in late 2020. Don't expect it to be a packed field of Airspeeders jostling for the lead; the 'beta' season is more about proof of concept, with head-to-head races taking precedence initially.
Matt Pearson said of the series: “Traditional motorsport fans will certainly recognise many elements of our race series. This is motorsport for the 21st century. It will inspire people who are native to e-sports as well as the more traditional motorsport fans.”
Alauda is developing the regulations around the racing series, but what we do know is that there will be a lot of recognisable crossovers to traditional motor racing. Much like the old days of refuelling in F1, distinct teams will need to balance their strategies and plan pit-stops to make the most of the available run time of the Airspeeders.
Speaking to Euronews, Pearson said: "Electrification may answer many of the questions internal combustion cannot. By racing these flying cars we are moving towards an 'electric vehicle future', much in the same way Formula E has inspired increasing uptake for electric cars.
"We have built sustainability into our approach to racing. For example, our approach to globally stream the sport rather than focus it on being a mass spectator spectacle ensures there is minimal environmental impact in the creation of infrastructure. Our courses do not require building or maintaining in the same way a modern motorsport track does. Also, we don’t require impactful materials like tarmac to stage our races.
"This really is a motorsport that answers the demands of a more conscious generation."
Whilst the ultimate goal for Airspeeder remains in having pilots taking to the skies to race the Mk4 variant, that is now set to start in 2022. In the meantime, the Mk3 Airspeeders, which are remotely operated, will begin racing this year.
Airspeeder and Alauda will be building 10 identical Mk3 vehicles which will be supplied to teams through this year. Final pre-season testing is due to take place in Australia along the way. When racing does start (the date for which hasn’t been confirmed), the Mk3s will not only be competing, they will also be providing data which can then be applied to the manned Mk4s.
The Mk3s themselves are considerably lighter than the Mk4, coming in at just 100kg. Despite this, their flight systems, powertrain, safety, manoeuvrability characteristics and safety systems have much in common with the Mk4, enabling teams to prepare for eventual manned flight.
Getting a start-up racing series started and making a success of it is extremely difficult, especially so when you're also turning science fiction into fact at the same time. However, we're pretty confident that the Airspeeder Racing Series will both literally and figuratively get off the ground and – certainly initially – draw a decent amount of interest. What it needs to do is ensure that the action is gripping; else it simply won't hold people's attention. You can see where the investors' money is going, however, and that's not really into the racing; it's into proving a concept and getting ahead in the eVTOL market by leveraging Alauda's expertise.