Is It Possible to Make a Living Racing Drones for Money?
We talked to a real life drone racer about big-time prize money, going pro, and losing to a teenager.
This March, Brian Morris went to Dubai to compete in the first ever World Drone Prix and got beaten by a 15-year-old British kid. Morris took second place and $275,000.
Drone racing is a growing sport in which pilots wearing virtual reality headsets guide their camera-mounted quadcopters through hairpin turns and neon-lit gates at 60 miles an hour. Undeterred by the inherent ridiculousness of this idea, various leagues and organizations across the world are battling to get the upper hand and become the UFC of drone racing. Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has thrown his money into the sport. ESPN has committed to broadcasting the International Drone Racing Association.
After years of flying remote control helicopters and RC cars, Morris is a natural drone pilot. The 38-year-old still has a day job as the IT manager at a printing company, but with the sport growing, he's hopeful this will be the year he can make racing a full-time profession.
When was the first time you flew a drone?
It's been a couple years ago, I guess. I had a friend who was flying them around here and I'd previously been racing RC cars. I said, I think I'll try the whole drone thing and see how it goes.
And how was it?
It was good. I immediately bought the most expensive drone I could possibly find on the interwebs and built it.
What was your first race?
It was that spring. There was a big event in Austin and you could race the number one helicopter pilot in the world—Curtis Youngblood is his name. I was looking at videos of him flying and I thought: "I could beat this guy." So I went down there and beat him. There was a guy down there who sponsored me on the spot for beating up the helicopter guy.
How do you practice?
I have a course in front of my house. So it's just a matter of gathering up all my drones and walking out the front door. When I'm practicing, sometimes people will come race me and sometimes I race against myself. I just set a timer on my radio and try to beat it, try to beat it, try to beat it.
What does the course look like?
Basically, it's a bunch of trees. It's a small residential park with medium sized trees in it. We race around the trunks and over the tops of it. It has anything. That's one thing I attribute my success to. I can find any obstacle on any given track I've ever run into in the United States and I can make something just like it on my course. I can just walk outside and say "OK, we're going to fly around the tree here, we're going to go over that."
What was that championship in Dubai like?
That was awesome, that was crazy. I think it was a $4 million track, a $1 million prize pool, the lights, the whole Dubai experience. It was just amazing.
A 15-year-old won that race. How did that feel?
Well it's been non-stop comments ever since then about how I let a 15-year-old beat me. But he was fast! He deserved to win. He did a good job.
What makes a good racer?
Actually, the thing I've noticed is consistency. I think that's number one. I'm pretty much never the fastest guy. I never set the fastest laps, but I'm always on the podium because I always finish. In the big race in Dubai, in the final race over there, only two out of four finished. If you crash, you get nothing, it's all over. You've gotta find a way to string three to five laps together without touching a single thing. One little clip—you're done.
Is drone racing a sport?
Well we like to think it is. We signed a deal with ESPN who's going to be broadcasting the major events in the United States. It's going to be another eSports. I don't know where drone racing fits in the sports category, but certainly it has grown like mad. A year ago, there was an event a month for me to attend. Now there's twenty a weekend. It's insane.
How has it changed in the time you've been racing?
From nothing to something. And the speed of the racers themselves has gone down considerably. A year ago, we were doing 22 seconds a lap on this course. Six months later we were doing 13 seconds a lap. And all I did was upgrade, upgrade, upgrade. The lifespan on a lot of these motors is just 3 weeks. Something newer and faster and lighter is always coming out and you have to stay on top of the madness.
And what about in terms of making it a viable spectator sport?
So that's the problem. I think it's gone backwards. You have a bunch of black drones driving around at 70 miles an hour. If you're a spectator, you can't see anything. They've just gotten smaller and faster. We're all just screaming, "Make them bigger, make them bigger." Because you can't tell what's going on if you go to a drone race. I think as a spectator sport, they need to go up—way up—probably four times the size they are right now to make them way more visible. Crashes need to be big, like Nascar crashes. You hit something—smoke, fire, parts exploding everywhere. If you want to make it a spectator sport, you've gotta give them something they want to watch.
But it's still growing?
Everything is just go, go, go right now. There's all these places that have a couple million dollars of funding in them. Now we have to see if they can make it happen. My guess is this year's big, next year's big. Either it goes big or it falls off the face of the planet.
This interview has been edited for length, clarity, and style.
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