Inspiration, Trends

Inside the Drone Racing League: Is This the Sport of the Future?


Drones are more popular than ever. Hobbyists use them to soar the skies, videographers use them to capture stunning footage, and Amazon is testing them as an option for delivering packages. And now there’s another exciting frontier for drones: professional racing.

Drone racing has been a budding sport for some time, but it could be on the verge of becoming the next NASCAR. The Drone Racing League (DRL) was founded in 2015 by its CEO, Nicholas Horbaczewski, to bring together some of the world’s greatest drone pilots. This year, they’ll compete in six major international events in unique venues (football stadiums, abandoned malls), eventually culminating in a World Championship event.

DRL pilots control their drones via goggles, which allow them — through a live feed connected to cameras on the drones — to see what their machines are doing in first-person-view (FPV). “The pilots at a DRL race experience a real-time video feed from their drone as it flies, with almost zero latency,” says Horbaczewski. “The human brain actually believes it’s in the cockpit of the drone.”
Controlling drones in FPV as they fly at speeds in excess of 80 MPH would be thrilling enough, but the DRL also prides itself on adding something extra to the experience. “Our team is most inspired by the ability to create three-dimensional race courses that will test the limits of the drones, forcing pilots to think beyond the traditional 2D course and racing strategies,” says Horbaczewski. And if that weren’t challenging enough, the league also provides pilots with custom drones that have no stabilization technology, making them much more difficult to fly and — for better and worse — leaves them at perpetual risk of crashing spectacularly.

All of this is designed not just for the pilots’ experiences, but the audience’s, as well — most of whom will be watching from home in a very unique way. “With current FPV technology, we can bring viewers a first-hand look at what the pilot experiences as they crash, win, or overtake a competitor going 80+ mph in a tight hallway,” says Horbaczewski. If that sounds like something that would be perfect for virtual reality, you’d be right. There are already plans to add 360-degree cameras to future races, and the CEO very much foresees a future where spectators could strap on their Oculus Rifts and feel like they’re experiencing the vertigo-inducing race themselves. “VR has a range of incredibly exciting possibilities for sports like drone racing,” he says. “Goggles could be used to enhance the fan experience by sharing the same view as their favorite pilot during a tight race.”

Currently there are less than two dozen pilots whose experiences you can share, but the Drone Racing League knows no sport can thrive without competitors. “Drone racing is a very young sport, and we want to help the masses understand what an incredible amount of skill it requires to race at the level of the DRL pilots,” says Horbaczewski. In doing so, the goal is to encourage today’s audiences to become tomorrow’s great pilots with tools like an FPV simulator that will help aspiring pilots begin developing the skills required to join the DRL’s pilot roster. “This year, we will test the skills of roughly the best 50 pilots,” says Horbaczewski, “but we expect this number to expand as skills increase.”

What also looks like it will increase is the number of investors looking to help make drone racing the next big professional sport — an area where the league has already found success. Matt Bellamy, lead singer of global superstar band Muse, recently lent his support, joining a long list that includes RSE Ventures, CAA Ventures, Hearst Ventures, Strauss Zelnick (CEO of Take-Two Interactive Software), Allen Debevoise (founder of Machinima), and Gary Vaynerchuk with Vayner/RSE — who have already helped the league raise more than $8 million.

What may ultimately benefit the DRL more than money, however, is its great timing. “The rise of eSports in the last few years has demonstrated the overwhelming demand for technology-based competition,” says Horbaczewski. “This is the first event of its kind to bridge a traditional, real-life sport experience with cutting edge technology.” Capitalizing on that timing means the league has a lot of room to evolve. “What is most exciting and will help shape our outlook on the next 5-10 years, is that we’re just learning what the pilots and drones are capable of. As the sport grows, our courses will get more complex and the pilots’ skills will be more aggressively pushed.” Throw in the increasing interest in drones, the coming VR revolution, and the press’ eager embrace of the league’s potential, and you don’t need a crystal ball to anticipate that the Drone Racing League could be facing a very bright and shiny future.

So what would a future where the DRL has made it big look like? “Once we’ve brought drone racing to all seven continents, with live events and a global fan base, and established our pilots as household names as the best drone pilots in the world, we’ll know we’ve gone mainstream.”

For more information about the Drone Racing League’s upcoming events, check out their website, and follow them on Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube for all the latest news and videos from inside the league.

All images and videos courtesy of the Drone Racing League.