Competitive drone racing feels like a video game come to life. Flying robots zoom through space at speeds pushing 80 miles per hour, navigating enormous courses laid out in subway tunnels, abandoned buildings, and NFL stadiums. Drone pilots have the reflexes of seasoned gamers and the technical know-how of aerospace engineers. They fly via remote control, using virtual reality goggles that stream video live from onboard cameras.
On January 26, the Drone Racing League (DRL) announced the launch of the first official drone racing circuit with an adrenaline-pumping promo video that looks like a CGI-enhanced stunt. But the video is authentic, and DRL’s CEO Nicholas Horbaczewski is betting teasers like this one, which shows drones whipping past neon lights and smoke in a vacant stadium, will drum up support for what DRL calls “the sport of the future.”
“We’ve all watched Star Wars or played video games and seen flying objects racing each other around a three-dimensional course at high speeds. Drone racing takes all of those elements and makes it real,” Horbaczewski tells The Creators Project. “A lot of people who’ve seen drone racing say it’s like a real-life video game. It’s a futuristic moment coming to life.”
The DRL is legitimizing a sport that started underground. FAA regulations are murky when it comes to first-person view (FPV) drone racing, and early enthusiasts met on the lam, flying in open fields, forests, and abandoned buildings. So far, DRL has six official races scheduled for 2016. The first is on February 22 at Sun Life Stadium, home of the Miami Dolphins, with a second race slated for mid-March at the abandoned, cinematic Hawthorne Mall in Los Angeles.
The popularity of drones has exploded, with retailers like Amazon selling more than 10,000 hobby drones a month. Capitalizing on that fervor, DRL aims to not just create a new sport, but launch a brand new form of entertainment.
“In the next few years, we could all own VR goggles, and you can imagine pulling on a pair of goggles to watch a race. And the fact that we’re racing flying robots gives us access to different interfaces and allows us to overlay a lot of virtual data over real data. So you could be sitting at your computer watching a race, but maybe you’re also flying against top pilots in a video game simulator layered over actual racing,” Horbaczewski says.
DRL already has a beta version of a race simulator game on its website and will hold video game competitions this year for pilots who aspire to join the league. The skill involved, coupled with the high-octane excitement of quadcopters winging through space at high speeds, goes a long way towards explaining the excitement around drone racing. But for a generation that increasingly champions gamers and developers as pioneers, DRL offers something extra: the chance to reshape the public’s perception of what constitutes a star athlete.
“All different physical types and ability levels can get into drone racing,” says Horbaczewski. “We have pilots who are stockbrokers, and we have pilots who unload trucks at Macy’s. And that gets me really excited, because I think it creates aspirational sports figures for a really wide and diverse set of people. We get to be athletes and nerds and scientists all in the same day.”
To learn more about the Drone Racing League, click here.