buzzed

There’s now a drone racing league that feels like pod racing from Star Wars

Hurtling at 70 mph around tight corners and narrow straightaways, jostling for position against other racers, your favorite racer closes in on the finish line. You watch him round the final turn, but he cuts it a little too tightly and crashes into a concrete wall, smashing into a million pieces.

Thankfully for the racer, he was just piloting a drone—like in the video above—and the audience was watching the live feed from its onboard camera. First-person drone racing, where racers fly drones using video goggles connected through radio to the drone, is a burgeoning sport. The first US national drone racing championship took place last summer in California, but few braved the heat to watch it. A new company, however, thinks it has figured out how to turn the visceral excitement of watching drones fly through courses at high speeds into a sport. Today, the Drone Racing League (DRL) announced its inaugural racing season. The league hopes to be the Formula 1, NASCAR and MotoGP of drone racing, and has secured backing from venture capital firms and celebrities to make that a reality.

Technical innovations

Some of the biggest issues plaguing the fledgling sport right now are technical. The video feed between a drone and the video goggles needed to pilot is currently rather grainy. Higher quality HD videos cause the feeds to lag, which can lead to acute motion sickness for drone pilots and a sense that you’re watching a beat-up old VHS recording for the audience. The DRL’s solution to this problem is a bold one: Forget live viewing (at least for now).

Two of DRL’s custom-built drones, ready to race.(Drone Racing League)

The DRL’s custom-built drones have standard-definition cameras that send feeds to the pilots, and they also have HD cameras which allow producers to cut together videos of the drones whipping through their courses that are actually easy to watch once they’re done. The drones are adorned with colored LED lights, which also happens to make the foot-long drones a lot easier to spot when they’re moving at top speeds.

Its races will be in closed-door locations—its first official race was in the Dolphins’ stadium, and its next one will be in an abandoned mall in Los Angeles—and after each event, the DRL will produce a series of episodic videos of the races. The league adds to the drama at their events by lining the buildings in bright neon lights and pumping in dry ice fog. Not only does this make the course and the drones a bit easier to spot with the naked eye, it gives the races a wonderfully 90s-cyberpunk vibe.

DRL’s product director, Ryan Gury, told Quartz that he has designed the radio communication system for the league’s drones from scratch. In theory, this means that all the pilots racing should be able to get decent quality video feeds back from their drones throughout the whole race. This has been an issue with other drone racing competitions. At the Drone Nationals, drones often wouldn’t take off, and drones would routinely crash because pilots lost their video feeds mid-flight.

The DRL’s promise of a robust radio network will also help the league create courses that challenge pilots. Instead of simply following a route around a building or field, the DRL’s courses are in three dimensions. Pilots will have to avoid obstacles, and duck in and out of nooks and crannies in buildings, to complete the courses. DRL CEO Nick Horbaczewski told Quartz that he believes Gury will one day be remembered as “the Leonardo da Vinci” of drone racing.

A dramatic view of racers walking to their heat.(Drone Racing League)

Giving structure

Every sport needs rules, and the DRL is trying to codify what professional drone racing might look like. The league is building drones from scratch for each pilot to use, instead of having them supply their own. While most racing sport leagues don’t provide vehicles for competitors, many have stringent rules on what vehicles must look like, and how they perform. The regulations for Formula One are insanely granular, with dozens of stipulations on things like the types of wheels cars can use. This helps level the playing field—giving no racer a technical advantage over another—and the DRL appears to be following suit.

The league is also using a competitive structure similar to downhill skiing to ensure pilots get a fair shot. Other drone races have had qualifying heats, but the DRL will have multiple heats per race. This means a racers’ best time will be used, so if something happens to go wrong on an individual run of the course, the pilot will have another chance to complete the course. After qualifying races, winners head to knock-out semifinal races, and then finals. Each event will award points to the winners. Season winners will be decided by the racers with the most points after all the events are complete.

DRL drones racing through a checkpoint.(Drone Racing League)

While the DRL is only inviting certain pilots to compete in its first season—ones that have proven themselves in other competitions—it said in a release that it will host an open call for new pilots later this year.

It’s been built—will they come?

The DRL, while still in stealth mode, announced back in August that Stephen Ross, the owner of the Miami Dolphins, had invested $1 million in the league through his investment firm RSE Ventures. Today, the DRL said it had secured funding from a range of new sources to get its league off the ground. Investments were made by CAA Ventures—the venture capital arm of the talent agency Creative Artists Agency—Lux Capital, and Hearst Ventures, the investment arm of the media company that owns multiple TV channels, magazines like Esquire and Car & Driver, and a stake in ESPN—all outlets that might help take a new technology-based sport to the right audiences.

Matt Bellamy, the lead singer of the British band Muse—whose most recent album was entitled Drones—is also, it turns out, one of the company’s first investors.

Crashing at high speed.(Drone Racing League)

The DRL confirmed to Quartz that it had raised “more than $8 million” in funding to date, including the previously announced $1 million RSE investment.

 “You were promised Star Wars and you got a Saturday afternoon barbecue in a field.” 

The league isn’t the only group trying to move drone racing from a hobby to a commercially viable sport. Aerial Sports League, a competing drone-racing league, told Quartz at the Maker Faire in New York in October, that it’s looking into creating a television show for its races, as well as racing at geek-friendly events like Maker Faires and comic book conventions, plus corporate events. And Scot Refsland, the organizer behind last year’s Drone Nationals, is working on a bigger and better competition this year called the Drone Worlds, to be set in Hawaii in October.

 

A pilot controlling his drone through video goggles.(Drone Racing League)

But Horbaczewski said he worries about drone racing events fraught with technical issues and no one in the stands. If enough events like these are hyped up and fail to deliver on their promise, it could be detrimental to the sport’s potential—assuming anyone is able to market the sport at all. “You were promised Star Wars, and you got a Saturday afternoon barbecue in a field,” Horbaczewski said.

It remains to be seen what level of interest the general public will have in drone racing, and whether the DRL will be the one to raise the sport’s profile with its unique format. But with first-person drone videos racking up millions of views online, it’s not crazy to think that Horbaczewski might be on to something—his team just needs to turn it into a viable business.

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