If recent television deals are anything to go by, it seems the US now has a new summer pastime. First-person drone racing, barely even a concept a few years ago, is now going to be on two US cable TV channels this summer.
Earlier this year, ESPN announced a deal to broadcast the US Drone Nationals event in New York, and yesterday, the Discovery Channel and Mountain Dew announced that a new invitational league, called DR1, will have a race in Los Angeles, to be broadcasted this July.
In drone racing, pilots strap cameras to drones, and then wirelessly connect a pair of video goggles to the camera’s feed, allowing them to see what the drone sees as it flies. The new league will bring together some of the early stars of the fledgling sport, including Luke Bannister, a teenager who won the sport’s largest-to-date prize in Dubai earlier this year; Chad Nowak, who won last year’s Drone Nationals; and Carlos Puertolas (known as “Charpu”), who has amassed a large following online for his exciting drone-racing videos. In a release, Mountain Dew also announced that it will be sponsoring its first pilot, Tommy Tibajia (known as “Ummagawd”).
Mountain Dew, the neon-yellow caffeinated soda, has long associated itself with “extreme” lifestyles and sports, having sponsored everything from mountain bike races to skateboard competitions, as well as basketball stars. Adding drone racing to its portfolio seems to signify the brand’s intent to keep that image going, with a sport that may well end up being as popular as skateboarding. The brand has even put out a new strange ad to celebrate drone racing:
The DR1 event will take place at the Sepulveda Dam in Los Angeles in this summer, and will be shown on the Discovery Channel and the streaming site Twitch in July. It’s interesting timing, given that the drone racing program ESPN unveiled just last month and billed as a first-ever event on US television will now be the second event on TV this summer.
And these aren’t the only leagues looking to turn drone racing into a legitimate sport: The Drone Racing League, unveiled in January with over $8 million in funding from a range of sources (including the owner of the Miami Dolphins American football team and the lead singer of the band Muse) is staging races across the US this year, and producing TV-quality videos of the races to watch on YouTube.
Even though funding from brands, television deals, and venture capital is starting to flow in, there’s no guarantee that drone racing will become anything more than a hobbyist activity. The sport is still wrought with technical challenges—like only being able to race a few drones at once, or the low-quality camera feeds pilots receive from their drones—and it’s still almost impossible to watch these drones, which are about the size of a dinner plate, race around at upwards of 70 mph, in person. But competition often spurs innovation, so perhaps competing leagues will help solve these problems.
So this summer, when you’re at the bar watching ESPN highlights of the day’s sports, don’t be surprised when instead of baseball stars performing crazy acts of athleticism, you see adults sitting down wearing goggles making radio-controlled aircraft do flips at really high speeds. It’s the future of sport.