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UK teenager leads team to World Drone Prix win in Dubai

Published 13/03/2016

A UK teenager triumphed in a drone competition in Dubai
A UK teenager triumphed in a drone competition in Dubai

A team led by a 15-year-old British pilot has won the first World Drone Prix in Dubai.

Luke Bannister of Somerset raised the golden trophy over his head after the race on Saturday night, held with the looming skyscrapers of the Dubai Marina in the background.

Bannister's team, Tornado X-Blades Banni UK, won a 250,000 dollar (£174,000) purse, part of 1 million dollars (£695,000) in prizes handed out in the inaugural edition of this race.

A cabinet-level minister in the United Arab Emirates also 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, as well as drone flying, as this city of futuristic skylines yearns to be ahead of the curve.

"We are trying to bring the future closer to us," said Mohammed al-Gergawi, 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 covered by goggles allowing them to watch a feed from a camera on their drone.

The drones raced on a course behind them, zipping along a white track that occasionally reached up to pinch at the speeding aircraft for 12 laps with the skyscrapers of the Dubai Marina behind them.

The pilots wore the white racing jumpsuits familiar to Formula One, but racers have to worry about what is above and below them as they fly their drones, said Zachry Thayer, a 25-year-old pilot for Team Big Whoop of Fort Collins, Colorado. But the onboard camera puts a racer into the action like nothing else, he said.

Dubai, once a sleepy desert port city now home to the world's tallest building and the long-haul airline Emirates, has embraced drones. Dubai's ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, has given the 1 million dollars Drones for Good Award over the last two years.

Government agencies across the larger United Arab Emirates, ever-eager to be seen using new technology, use drones in activities as varied as inspecting buildings to calming a frantic Abu Dhabi window-washer in 2014 caught 10 storeys up after his scaffolding got stuck.

But the proliferation of hobby drone pilots has caused problems here as elsewhere in the world. Dubai International Airport, the world's busiest for international travel, 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, but a sport that requires mental focus and accuracy to enable users to harmonise 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.

"Obviously, there's a crossover with gaming, as you can see with the HD goggles," said Nigel Tomlinson of Manchester, UK, who was the manager of Luke's team.

On Saturday night at the World Drone Prix, the novelty of the competition seemed to hold the audience's attention as the drones buzzed around the track. After winning, Mr Tomlinson said the 43 members of Luke's team would share the prize money.

Luke himself also seemed happy, rocking back and forth on his heels on the winner's podium.

"The lights were awesome," he shyly said afterwards, as his team cheered.

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