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Drone racing just became a mainstream sport, thanks to ESPN

  • Mike Murphy
By Mike Murphy

Technology editor

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

There’s a hotel in Williamsburg—the expensive part of Brooklyn that still feels ‘edgy’ to a certain set—called the Wythe. It’s a trendy restored warehouse that often hosts hip soirees and parties for famous brands. On a freezing January evening, its exposed-brick walls and man-bunned bartenders hosted a launch party for a new sports league, called The Drone Racing League. It’s the brainchild of Nick Horbaczewski, who previously helped turn Tough Mudder endurance runs into something that people enjoy doing, and Ryan Gury, a former advertising creative director and drone racer. The two have created a company that intends to be the cool face of drone racing. DRL has secured over $8 million in funding from venture capital firms, as well as the owner of the Miami Dolphins, and the lead singer of the band Muse. Rapper 50 Cent shows up to their races. They intend to take what’s fun about watching small objects the size of a dinner plate hurtle through the air, and turn it into a global sport.

And they’re not alone. ESPN, the US sports cable network, announced today (April 13) that it will broadcast a three-day drone-racing event in New York. The cable network will livestream the competition—organized by Scot Refsland, the man who hosted the first US national drone racing competition last year—on ESPN3, its online channel. It will also produce daily hour-long roundups for one of ESPN’s television channels. Add into the mix a drone-racing event in Dubai in March that had $1 million of prize money at stake, and it would be safe to say that first-person view (or FPV) drone racing is having a bit of a moment. This sport, that was almost entirely nonexistent just a few years ago, seems to be on the precipice of going mainstream. 

“Up to this point, FPV Racing has always been in a field with a bunch of nerds and geeks.”

What’s strange about drone racing, however, is that it’s not really like any sport that’s come before it. It’s got the fast-paced racing action of sports like Formula 1 and NASCAR, the DIY, outsidery feel of skateboarding, and the techy, sedentary nature of e-sports (or video game sports). But unlike all of these other sports, or really any sport before it, drone racing is actually best viewed from a distance, after the fact. These drones are small and travel upwards of 60 mph around large, three-dimensional racetracks. It’s hard to watch that live, in person, especially with today’s less-than-perfect technology. Millions of fans are sharing videos online of pilots juking and jiving through abandoned buildings, old power stations, parking lots, empty fields, and watching them on their phones, and laptops. But very few people are showing up to see drones races in real life. Indeed, what we may be witnessing is the birth of the first new sport of the internet age: A sport that isn’t bound by time or collective experience, but instead a sport that is atomized and doled out in digital chunks, like so many Snapchats, Instagrams, Facebook links and tweets before them. A sport for the 21st century.

Culprit Creative
A DRL pilot preparing for a race.

Creating a sport at the speed of the internet

Drone racing has gone from barely a concept to a fledgling sport with multiple leagues staking a claim that they are professional in a ridiculously short time. The term “drone racing” didn’t even really exist at the start of 2014.

One of the earliest viral videos to surface of the sport was from September 2014: A group of French pilots flew through a forest and millions of people watched, as the media compared the race to the speeder bike chase in the Star Wars film, The Return of the Jedi.

Since then, some drone pilots have gone on to amass large online followings. Perhaps none more so than Carlos Puertolas. Charpu, as he’s known in the racing community, can do unbelievable things with an FPV drone. His videos have racked up millions of hits online, and show what the sport could be like to watch.

Groups have formed around the world to help people meet other people interested in casually racing drones. Online groups have formed, including multiple active Reddit communities. And competitions have started to spring up—some organized by racers who want to prove they’re better than their friends, others interested in turning FPV into an actual sport. One of those people is Scot Refsland.

Quartz/Mike Murphy
The Drone Nationals’ Scot Refsland.

Like many of the greatest technical achievements to come out of the US in recent decades, the first national drone racing competition was born in the garage of a well-to-do suburb in the Bay Area. It was the brainchild of Scot Refsland, a former professor, virtual-reality researcher and perennial entrepreneur. He is a tinkerer and a maker. The day we visited, his garage was littered with multiple 3D printers, drones, radio-controlled planes, VR headsets (he was a fan of the early Oculus Rift headsets, for what it’s worth), power tools, workbenches, soldering irons and just about anything you’d need to make something fly, hover or roll. Refsland had been flying RC helicopters and planes for years, and through his studies on VR, came across Augmented Reality—a technology that allows digital information to be overlaid on real life, like how Google Glass works. When he first discovered FPV, everything sort of clicked for him—the excitement of VR and AR, flying, and technology.

“Up to this point, FPV Racing has always been in a field with a bunch of nerds and geeks,” Refsland said. “If somebody’s watching, it’s usually from 100 feet away. There’s never been anybody who’s perfected the sport, like Formula One racing.”

Another emerging player in FPV is DRL. Unlike Refsland, DRL’s Horbaczewski opted to stay away from live events when he launched with that splashy event in January. Its races—it has staged two so far—will all be held behind closed doors, filmed, edited, and distributed online afterward. Horbaczewski says this is to ensure that the general public’s first impression of drone racing is something that looks impressive, with scenery, fanfare and drama—not just a few people hanging around in an empty stadium somewhere.

Some turbulence ahead

Quartz/Mike Murphy
Zoe Stumbaugh hovering her drone right at eye level.

When was the last time you felt like you were flying when you were standing still? When was the last time something on TV gave you that feeling? That’s what drone pilots feel every time they strap on their video goggles.

“Putting the goggles on is a completely ‘out-of-body’ experience. You put them on and no longer are you connected to your actual self,” Zoe Stumbaugh, a drone racing pilot who competed in last year’s US drone nationals, told Quartz. “You’re connected to the world in front of you and that’s all that matters. I’ve never experienced anything that has actually triggered all those chemicals in the brain, gets the adrenaline going and makes you actually want to fly through the world. I mean it’s kind of magical.”

Charpu agrees. “You can fly for under a thousand dollars. It’s almost like a superpower.”

Unfortunately, that experience doesn’t translate for spectators, who’re left craning their necks as they try to follow a small object hurtle through the air at high speeds. Just about every event that’s been organized to date has suffered from low turnout. When we visited Refsland’s event last summer, there were probably a few hundred people at most who braved the summer sun to check out the Drone Nationals.

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

It turns out that a poor spectator experience is the least of drone racing’s problems right now. In fact, the fledgling sport faces a ridiculous number of challenges. It’s difficult to organize, hard to take part in, impossible to follow, and even when it all works, the drones could just spontaneously combust. Losers are having their hearts—and wallets—fall apart chasing this quixotic dream.

Flickr/steve lodefink/CC-BY-2.0
Drone racing: Some assembly required.

Consider what the pilots must contend with. Drone racing requires a radio connection between a drone, and the control system to steer it, as well as one between a camera on the drone and a pair a video goggles. If any of these connections are interrupted, a pilot can’t easily fly his drone. A lag in the video feed might cause the pilot to make a maneuver too late, causing the drone to crash. It could also make the pilotfeel nauseous if the lag is too great. (That’s something companies building virtual reality headsets are also struggling to fix.)

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

These radio problems were evident at the Drone Nationals. Stumbaugh, who was considered to be a title contender before the competition, had trouble controlling her drone on nearly every race. She didn’t even make it past the qualifying rounds, as she couldn’t see or maneuver as intricately as she was used to. And she was not alone—multiple racers per race simply didn’t take off on time, or crashed for no apparent reason. Race organizers implored all the participants and spectators in the paddock to make sure they had wifi turned off on their phones, so as to cut down on interference. It didn’t help much. 

DRL’s solution to this problem was to build a robust network of radio towers which it dots around its courses to ensure that pilots stay connected to their drones throughout the race. It also keeps the number of pilots that fly in one heat down to about four, to keep each pilot’s radio feed as clear as possible.

But even if the drones can all make it into the air and run their race, it’s proven nearly impossible to capture the drones effectively on camera. At the Drone Nationals, Refsland employed the services of pilots from the drone company Parrot to fly above the course and shoot footage—kind of like the Goodyear blimp at football games—but it was difficult to follow the action. And because of the limits of radio technology, drone cameras can’t send back HD video feeds to pilots’ video goggles, meaning they’re seeing something that looks like an old VHS tape, replete with fuzz and lines. It’s not impressive when broadcast to a jumbotron either. 

AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili
Two small FPV drones flying through a gate at Dubai’s World Drone Prix in March.

Then there’s the issue of safety. Drones are essentially lawnmowers with wings, and it’s easy to think of what could go wrong if drone races took place in crowded stadiums. At Aerial Sports League events, netting separates the crowd from the drones. At the Drone Nationals, there were nets protecting the pilots, and around the paddock, but had anyone actually showed up to watch the races, there would’ve been no protection between them and the drones.

“You can fly for under a thousand dollars. It’s almost like a superpower.”

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) still doesn’t really know what rules it needs to develop to regulate civilian use of drones, and it’s not even clear if FPV racing is actually legal. (Quartz reached out to the FAA multiple times on this question. All the FAA would say is that it’s “working with” race organizers like Refsland.)

And then even after all these issues, there’s the problem of batteries. The size of a stick of butter, each one can power a drone for around ten minutes. Racers have to have dozens of batteries on hand if they’re spending the day at an event. Beyond the financial outlay of so many batteries—and the time it takes to fiddle around with them after each race—there’s also the fact that these batteries are not entirely safe. Many are from dubiously manufactured sources (which is much the same issue that hoverboards have contended with) and they tend to overheat, and even catch fire. Pilots generally carry their batteries home in a flameproof satchel.

Oh, and one more thing: FPV drones are not sold at stores. You can’t pick them up at the local Best Buy. They’re custom-built, usually by the pilots themselves, and require a fair amount of understanding of electronics, circuit design, aeronautics and engineering. Steele Davis, a drone racer who competed at the Nationals and has worked with DRL, actually has a degree in electrical engineering. Unless you have someone willing to sit with you, show you every part you need to buy from disparate parts of the internet, and how to put them all together, you’re pretty much out of luck. Somehow, in drone racing, we’ve created a sport that’s even more exclusive than golf. All these challenges, taken in aggregate, might appear insurmountable. But don’t pack your drone kit back into its box just yet: There are reasons to be hopeful. 

Quartz/Mike Murphy
Two FPV drones sitting on some astroturf, waiting to take off.

A sport of its time

Just like stock-car racing a century ago and skateboarding in the 1970s, drone racing is uniquely of its age. It is fitting that in our video game-obsessed culture, a new sport would be rooted in a digital medium, instead of what many of us think of as sport, which is moving your analog body in some new way.

Rum-runners in the US modified their cars to make them fast enough to outrun the police during Prohibition in the 1920s. Then we started racing them against other modified cars because it was pretty fun. When alcohol became legal again, we kept racing cars and watched other people race cars while we drank alcohol. 

Drones started out as large vessels that the military used for tactical operations where it didn’t want to deploy troops. Then, rather like the Jeep after World War II, we commercialized the drone, made them smaller and cheaper and found ways to use them at home. We’ve always modified technical achievements—for good or for bad purposes—and turned them into sport, and drone racing is no different.

Skateboarding went from being a rebellious outsider activity in the 1970s and 1980s to something cool, if still somewhat ridiculous, with their first X Games on ESPN in 1995. The Washington Post called the first X Games the ”Look Ma, No Hands Olympics,” and sports columnist Norman Chad had this gem about the content of the games:  

“Apparently—and it’s possible I’m misinterpreting a cultural trend here—if you strap your best friend to the hood of a ’72 Ford Falcon, drive it over a cliff, juggle three babies and a chain saw on the way down and land safely while performing a handstand, they’ll tape it, show it and call it a new sport.”

Today, the X Games and the Winter X Games are pretty much staples of ESPN’s lineup. Millions of people tune in around the world to watch the events, and to watch clips of tricks online. 

“I think we’re going to be the same as, skateboarders, you know,” said Refsland.

Just like skateboarding was pilloried in its day, drone racing can look a bit silly, especially if you’re watching a person with goggles sit on a chair near a racetrack. But by that measure, the thousands of people around the world who share videos of themselves riding hoverboards, and all of us who spend all day taking selfies through filters on Snapchat must also look silly. It’s not restraining venture capital firms from pouring millions of dollars into virtual reality.

Quartz/Mike Murphy
Refsland’s drone-building workbench.

And if you want to weigh the chances that people will tune in to watch a drone race,  just look at e-sports, where teams of players play video games against other teams for vast sums of money, and internet glory. Over 35 million people watched 360 million hours of other people playing the League of Legends video game last year. Leading e-sports teams are are sponsored by brands like the energy drink Monster, Razer computers, AMD computer processors, and they’re raking in millions of dollars in prize money. Evil Geniuses, the top-earning team in 2015, took home over $12 million. There’s no reason to think that this sort of thing can’t happen in drone racing. Refsland says he’s already been approached by large consumer brands that tend to sponsor outsider sports for the next iteration of the Drone Nationals.  

Most sports revolve around motion of our physical bodies. Even Formula 1 and NASCAR put a vast amount of stress on the racers’ bodies. With e-sports and drone racing, the motions are rapid-fire, almost imperceptible, twitches of fingers and the competitive stress is almost entirely mental. And just as e-sports matches are best viewed online, in real-time or after the fact, drone races are going to be best viewed from a computer screen, where you can more easily see just how close a race was, or how amazing a maneuver the pilot made.

Quartz/Mike Murphy
Pilots preparing for a heat at the Drone Nationals.

Next up

The second DRL season event was filmed last month in the abandoned Hawthorne Plaza mall in California—a temple to the suburban excess that gave rise to the videogame culture we’re now living in—and will be released soon. It’s going to look like a cross between every post-apocalyptic horror movie of all time, and Tron, and it will likely appeal to just about every gaming geek and drone enthusiast out there.

Drone Racing League
DRL’s Nick Horbaczewski.

Horbaczewski believes that DRL will be able to build up a cast of characters that people will become invested in over the course of the season, and want to root for. The race episodes the league will put out likely won’t ever just be from the perspective of a drone flying through its course—like one of Charpu’s videos—they’ll be cut with interviews with pilots, back stories, trash-talking, slow-motion replays, and shots of the drones flying through the course. (That being said, DRL is releasing these as added extras on its YouTube channel.) Think big-budget network reality shows, like a cross between The Amazing Race and Battlebots. DRL actually told Quartz at its launch event that it loosens the bolts on the drones it makes the pilots fly, so that if one of them crashes, it looks far more spectacular. It’ll be interesting to see whether these slickly-produced videos will pull in a greater audience than the videos of just the races themselves.

The other path is what Refsland is spearheading: Live events with strong traditional broadcast and cable partners behind them. The next Drone Nationals will take place on Governor’s Island in New York City—a small island just south of the bottom of Manhattan, and a world away from the dusty Sacramento field where last year’s event took place. ESPN said it also plans to cover Refsland’s newest event, the Drone Worlds—which he wants to turn into the World Cup of drone racing—in the same fashion as the US tournament.

It’s beyond impressive that Refsland has managed to turn a live event that almost no one attended last year into a multi-year broadcast deal on a national cable network. Of course, ESPN might just be covering its bases should drone racing become a huge craze. After all, ESPN broadcasts some pretty esoteric things already, from monster-truck racing, to hog-tying events, competitive eating events, and bass fishing—but ESPN is also the network that took the chances on those once-crazy outsider sports that are mainstays of its broadcast schedule now.

Quartz/Mike Murphy

What comes after that

But what’s really fascinating about drone racing isn’t what’s happening today, it’s tomorrow. Yes, this is a sport very much in its infancy, and the speed at which it’s grown is something to be skeptical of—as are the technical and dissemination problems it faces. But there is a kernel of wonder to hold on to here. The technology underlying drone racing will get better. Just look at where the consumer virtual reality market has gone in the last few years: From flights of fancy on crowdfunding sites in 2012, to a multibillion-dollar industry with some of the biggest names in technology releasing consumer headsets this year. And consider what virtual reality could bring to the sport.

“My vision is there’s definitely going to be somebody on the Wheaties box… holding a racing quadcopter or drone.”

Once VR is in wider use, it could help evolve drone racing into something genuinely exciting—not just for the participants, but for video spectators too. In the near future, that could mean strapping on an Oculus Rift to watch how Charpu or Steele performed at their last race, following the dips and spins of their drones as they navigate increasingly intricate courses. Farther out, once radio technology allows for it, we could be watching along in real time, on our phones, video goggles or VR headsets, at races around the world. We could see what the pilot sees, and feel like we’re flying as we sitting in our pajamas on the couch at home.

Drone Racing League
A DRL drone flying through a gate at the Miami event.

“My vision is there’s definitely going to be somebody on the Wheaties box at one point in time, you know, holding a racing quadcopter or drone,” Refsland said. “And there’s going to be posters, you know, it’s going to happen.”

Go back to the top of this article, and watch that video again. Better yet, go watch some of Charpu’s videos, or Zoe’s tricks, or watch three racers battle to cross the line first in a DRL video. Go borrow an Oculus Rift from someone and watch a drone race like the pilots are seeing it. Go to a park and try it out. Race your friends. Build a rig. Become a champion.

You’ll start to feel why so many people are so interested in turning this into a sport. You’ll see why millions of dollars have started flowing in, and perhaps you’ll want to keep watching.

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