It is the final lap of the race, and the audience watches as three competitors jockey for the pole position. Then, on the last turn, one of the racers turns too slow and crashes into the wall as his vehicle bursts into pieces. Had there been a person on board, the driver would likely be dead. But this is a new kind of racing where a driver need not be in a car: this is professional drone racing.
As the name implies, drone racing involves pilots racing remote-controlled drones around a track. Despite being in its infancy, the sport has already developed several leagues. The biggest of these leagues is the Drone Racing League. But how did a league that’s only a few years old become successful enough to attract sponsors like ESPN? Now that it’s hit the big time, where will it go from here?
The Drone Racing League’s story starts in 2014, with a man named Nick Horbaczewski. At the time, Horbaczewski was the chief revenue officer for Tough Mudder, a racing company that builds obstacle courses for people who do not mind running through mud. Horbaczewski helped make it into a brand earning $100 million from, as he told Business Insider:
“literally people building their own courses and running through them in a field,”
Then, he came across a video of a man named Ryan Gury racing a drone through the Bronx. Gury had founded a company called DroneKraft to build drones with one purpose: to go fast. The two met over beers, and they talked about how this hobby could become a truly professional sport. They drove to Long Island, where Horbaczewski got to experience the potential it held. As an article from The Wired puts it:
the frightening but exhilarating feeling of unchecked speed that experienced hundreds of feet in the air, even as his feet were firmly on the ground.
Horbaczweski left Tough Mudder in January 2015 and founded the Drone Racing League. Within a few months, they got their first significant investor Stephen Ross, the owner of the Miami Dolphins. Ross sought to find ways to merge sports and technology, and the DRL fit the bill.
Flash forward three years later, and the DRL has grown in popularity. It has gained more than a dozen sponsors, runs on ESPN, and hosts races all over the world. The League is only in its infancy, though, and can continue to grow.
Under the Hood
In the beginning, Horbaczewski had hoped to buy the technology needed for racing drones off the shelf. To his dismay, he discovered that no models met his needs. That is where DroneKraft comes into play: Horbaczewski bought the company. Gury would be in charge of developing all drones in-house to ensure they met the League’s needs. Gury’s team remains hard at work, improving their drones to be faster and more durable with each model.
At speeds over 80 MPH, telling whose drone belongs to a racer was an issue. To fix this, Gury added more than a hundred LED lights on each drone, letting them change color to match their pilot. The result is a fast-moving spectacle that comparable to the light cycles from Tron.
As for maintaining radio contact between pilot and drone, a standard radio frequency would not be enough. When navigating through concrete structures, the signal can quickly fail. The DRL works around this by installing a custom network in each venue, and each drone has an advanced radio. Altogether, a stadium can run up to four drones at once without interference.
How to Get an Audience
As a sport, the DRL is aiming to turn itself into the next NASCAR, but to do that, it needs an audience. Ironically, the DRL never has anyone attending their events, by choice. Their concern is not actually the Federal Aviation Administration, though: since the races are indoors, they do not fall under FAA oversight. The DRL’s main concern is the safety of the fans: if a drone crashed, someone could get hurt. Moreover, there is the fact that live events might be considered boring by those who are not interested.
Therefore, instead of broadcasting or throwing live races, they record them down to the last second. Aside from the cameras already on the drones, they place 50 cameras around the racetrack that record each race. They then take the best footage from each race and edit it down into digestible videos. They release these videos online or on their sports networks several weeks afterward. This way, they can make episodes out of a single race and have a better chance of getting new fans.
The AIRR Circuit and The League’s Future Plans
In September 2018, the League announced a new event they created for the 2019 season. The Artificial Intelligence Robotic Racing Circuit, or AIRR Circuit, will pit AI run drones in races for science and glory. Funded by Lockheed Martin as part of a partnership with the DRL, the AIRR circuit meant to encourage the development of AI. According to Horbaczweski:
It will challenge teams of the most talented AI engineers and researchers from around the world to design an AI framework that’s capable of racing a drone — without any pre-programming or human intervention.
Using what they learn, AI developers can better understand the difference in skill between a human and an AI. In 2017, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab conducted a similar experiment, pitting a pro-drone racer against a group of AI-powered drones. Loo was faster, but the AI drone was able to navigate the course accurately, proving that it was not far behind a man.
Aside from the scientific knowledge to gain, there is a cash incentive: the team that creates an AI drone that can beat a human will win $250,000. The winner of the AIRR Circuit will earn $1 million. Then there is the glory to gain: the winner of the AIRR Circuit will race the DRL world champion at the end of the season. Any teams interested had better start prepping!
The future of sports is here, and it is tech-savvy! In three years, the Drone Racing League has started to make its mark on the world of sports entertainment, and it looks set to only improve from there. With several corporate sponsors and deals with sports networks around the world, the DRL are getting a sizeable following. If the AIRR Circuit manages to be a success, then it will only continue to grow! Until then keep your eyes peeled to your TV or computer, or you might miss the action!