A buzzing comes across the sky.
This past weekend, on the northwest side of an island in the New York Harbor, roughly 1,000 people witnessed what some believe to be the first new sport of the 21st century. ESPN was there to broadcast the event to anyone with a computer, and well-known international brands like GoPro, AIG, and Ernst & Young were there to sponsor it. But what the brands, fans, and vaguely interested passers-by saw as they watched on Governor’s Island were tiny, indistinguishable, bug-like devices whipping by at 60 mph. It was like watching a live Formula 1 race, if the race cars were the size of a dinner plate.
First-person-view (FPV) drone racing involves taking a homemade drone, pairing it with a camera and transmitter, and flying it as fast as you can against your friends, using a pair of video goggles to see what the drone is seeing. The concept didn’t exist a few years ago, but after a viral video comparing it to Star Wars, and with the help of Reddit and other web forums, it’s grown into an international movement that some are tying to turn into a spectator sport.
What the organizers of this weekend’s Drone Nationals, and presumably the brands pouring money into the fledgling sport, are hoping is that events like this prove to be the jumping off point for drone racing. A year ago, we watched Scot Refsland, the man behind the Drone Sports Association, which hosts the nationals, struggle to turn a hobbyist activity into a spectator sport. The first nationals were held in Sacramento as part of the California state fair, and fewer than 100 people braved the 100-degree weather to watch. But Refsland has spent the past year refining the event, signing major sponsorship deals, and convincing the most-watched sports network in the US to film the second iteration.
The event still had some of the same technical hiccups that plagued last year’s competition, such as wifi signals from spectators’ and pilots’ phones interfering with the radio signals used to control the drones and see their video feeds. Pilots were still angry, sweaty, messes as organizers and volunteers struggled to keep the event on schedule as the heat index again closed in on 100 degrees.
Drone racing is undeniably enjoyable to watch online—videos of races and pilots’ antics have racked up millions views—but watching it in person, or even live on a screen, has proven difficult. Current technological limitations mean that video feeds from the drones have to be standard definition so that there’s no lag in what the pilot sees while trying to pilot the drone. This means any footage relayed to jumbotrons or live television ends up looking fuzzy, blurry and choppy, like a VHS tape that was checked out from Blockbuster one too many times. To get live HD feeds on racing drones right now, you need to strap a second camera and transmitter on, weighing down the drone and slowing down the races. Even with high-resolution feeds, it’s difficult to track where pilots are in the race, who’s winning, or where the other racers are.
While these problems persisted at this year’s drone nationals, we saw, arguably, the green shoots of the infrastructure required to turn drone racing into something that’s actually fun to watch live—whether at the course or at home.
On Sunday, Refsland—who holds a doctorate in virtual reality—was walking around the grounds holding a Microsoft HoloLens, the company’s augmented-reality headset that was recently made available to any developer with $3,000 to play around with. At first blush, he might have looked like an early adopter showing off his early adoption, but Refsland explained how some of the companies he’d brought to the competition could actually turn his device into something we all may use to watch the sports of tomorrow.
Aside from Microsoft, there were two less well known sponsors that could ultimately turn drone racing into a mainstream sport. One of those was 5D Robotics, which brought a Velodyne Lidar camera (a laser-radar system that’s used on many of the self-driving cars in development around the world) to accurately map the weekend’s race course. 5D was then able to export that map into a virtual reality world that attendees could explore using a VR headset the company had brought.
5D had someone rather awkwardly carry the camera on a tripod around the course, but a drone could do this in the future. Imagine if, instead of watching the Super Bowl from the perspective of a camera placed high in the stands, you could digitally map yourself into an area with the exact same specifications of the stadium and watch the real game take place around you. By combining super-accurate, real-time data with immersive systems like the HoloLens or an Oculus Rift this could be a reality. While leagues like the NFL and MLB are trying to modernize their respective sports, drone racing is baking in this ability from the start.
Processing all that data requires robust computing systems. Google’s self-driving car system has the benefit of being run by one of the largest data processing companies in the world, which is not something that Refsland has behind him for his drone races. He did, however, bring EMC, a large data storage and cloud computing company recently purchased by Dell, to the nationals. Combine the company’s computing power with the torrents of data being received from live maps and drones zipping around at up to 100 mph and you start to see a real-time picture of what tomorrow’s drone races could look like: Real worlds represented virtually which you can walk through in your VR goggles. You could watch them course-side, in the stands, or perhaps even while you strut around your living room in your underwear.
Amimon, a wireless connectivity company, had a small, unassuming display set up inside Ernst & Young’s tent at the nationals. It recently released a technology that could fundamentally shift the way the sport is consumed. Almost all drone racers rely on setups that can only relay standard-definition video to their video goggles. Current HD video transmitters produce a noticeable lag in their feeds, meaning the pilot wouldn’t be able to accurately control their drone, and may even feel nauseous doing so. But Amimon’s new Connex wireless technology is a self-contained system for broadcasting HD video to pilots, TV screens, phones, livestreams—wherever it’s needed—that easily fits inside the average racing drone.
Amimon’s CEO, Ram Ofir, showed me the technology on a drone hooked up to Vuzix’s new video headset. It was pretty much as clear as looking straight ahead with your hands clasped around your face, and a marked improvement on the video feeds I’d seen from older drones. Ofir explained that because the entire setup was digital—from the camera, to the transmitter and through to the receiver—drones could theoretically relay other pieces of information—metadata—back to the receiver. That could be something as simple as a racer’s name and number. If you were to pair that data with the real-time information of the drone’s location and the virtual world that we’ve already envisioned for our drones to fly around in, suddenly drone racing starts to feel more like the thing that so many buzzy startups have promised us it would look like:
In January, a venture-backed startup called the Drone Racing League launched. Its strategy for bringing drone racing to the masses is markedly different from Refsland’s: It tapes all its races, and focuses on the personalities of the racers, rather like Battlebots, but for drones. The league even told us that it loosens the bolts on its drones so that when they hit something, the crashes are more spectacular. Much of the company’s promotional material has included drone races that have had computer-generated graphics indicating race positions, the location of other racers, and other information that just wouldn’t be possible with current technology. It’s a vision for the future that looks great on a YouTube clip, even if the reality is far less exciting. But imagine being able to actually step inside this:
Then there’s GoPro, which was providing aerial coverage of the weekend’s competition. The company is currently working on professional 360-degree video camera rigs that can be mounted on larger drones, as well as its own drones. Drone racing is one of the few examples where 360-degree videos would dramatically improve the viewing experience compared to traditional 2D videos. In a drone race, where there are other drones flying and trying to pass you on all sides, and obstacles in three dimensions, being able to look around could be far more exciting to a spectator than just watching a race from overhead, or from a straight-ahead view. You could be watching a race from the perspective of one racer, and then get a notification to switch to the racer ahead and watch as he’s passed overhead, then switch to a camera set up at the finish line to see if he managed to pass him with enough room to take the win.
The companies that Refsland brought together have the technologies needed to turn this vision into a reality. “There’s a reason I held this 10 minutes from Wall Street,” Refsland told Quartz. Whether he, or anyone else, will be able to wrangle all these companies together, along with the egos of the pilots, the aviation authorities of countries across the world, and find an audience before drone racing’s moment in the sun has passed, remains to be seen. But if he, or someone else, is able to pull it off, drone racing may look a lot less like a group of hirsute individuals in cargo shorts sitting in parks flying toys and a lot more like Tron.
In October, Refsland is hosting an international competition in Hawaii, called the Drone Worlds. But he doesn’t expect, or particularly want, to draw big crowds. He’s most interested in nailing the technical side of the event, and said that he’s working on securing a robust gigabit-internet connection from one of the major cellphone networks to use at the event.
Perhaps when the nationals roll around again next year, we’ll all be looking at our phones to see what the pilots see as they whiz by, or strapping on HoloLenses to get an augmented-reality look at how fast they’re going, and who’s winning. Or we’ll stay at home and watch ESPN-VR on our Oculus headsets.
Or perhaps we’ll see it’s on and just switch over to whatever else is shouting to get our attention.