Drone Racing Prides Itself On Being the Ultimate Spectator Sport
Mashing up motorsports and videogames, this competition has broad appeal
Humans have found ways to race pretty much everything. Racing boats, planes, bicycles, wheelchairs, sleds, lawnmowers, school busses, motorcycles and, of course, cars are all fueled by competitive spirit and a desire to challenge technology and engineering boundaries. We can add drones to that list as 2016 looks to be the year when drone racing establishes itself as a legitimate competitive sport.
Drone racing is a very new sport and one of the organizations leading the way in terms of technology advancements, competition structure and spectator engagement is New York City-based Drone Racing League ( DRL). DRL will stage six races in 2016 culminating with a winner-take-all World Championship event to crown the league’s first top global drone pilot.
Drone racing videos on Youtube are gaining in popularity, with some racking up more than a million views and counting. We wanted to know what the draw to the new sport was all about, so we spoke with Nicholas Horbaczewski, DRL Founder and CEO, to explain the appeal,
“Drone racing is all about speed and the adrenalin rush that comes with it. The sport captures elements of motor racing, but translates them to 3D space. We also use unique environments as circuits. Races are held places like abandoned industrial factories or sports stadiums. We look for venues that provide a challenge to the pilots and an interesting visual backdrop for spectators.”
To explain briefly how DRL’s formula of racing works, pilots have to use drone hardware supplied by the Drone Racing League. Individuals can’t modify the hardware at all, so no motor swaps or alternative prop designs could be used. Pilots are allowed to tune drones to their specific tastes regarding control response and handling characteristics.
Pilots compete in short heat races, each lasting only about 90 seconds to two minutes long where they have to navigate a course of checkpoints that register time. The pilot through all the checkpoints in the shortest time wins the race. Pilots fly the drones via a controller and goggles which show a first-person view of the drone’s flightpath from front-mounted cameras. The drones are capable of speeds of 80 mph.
Motorsport fans make up the early adopter spectator base of drone racing. But what makes drone racing distinct and potential for broader appeal is how spectating can be done.
“People can do what we call ‘copiloting’ and watch the race through goggles as well. They get to experience the same view as the pilot through the cameras on the front of each drone. The sensation of flying blurs the line between what is virtual and what’s real.”
DRL staged their first competitive event at the Miami Sun Life stadium. They don’t have the capability for live spectating at events yet, but Horbaczewski said it is a component to the show they are looking to integrate in later. For now, races are filmed and released at a later date. The Miami race is set to be released on February 22. There is a teaser video which give a hint at what the races are like to watch.
Drone racing doesn’t yet have the big name sponsors like F1 or NASCAR and their star pilots are household names. The sport is very much in an exhibition stage of its life but it does have elements not foreign to other forms of racing. Horbaczewski acknowledges there’s opportunities ahead for the sport and potential for lots of spinoff technology.
“We are in the infancy of drone technology. Although it’s already a multi-billion dollar industry. This is the beginning of raising a generation of drone pilots around the globe. The skills and abilities of pilots will only get better as time moves on. It’ll be exciting to watch for sure.”