In the history of the world, there can’t be many sports that have gone from inception to 70 million viewers in half a decade, but drone racing has done just that.
While it started off with a group of enthusiasts racing home-made kit in empty public spaces, now, thanks to the Drone Racing League, it’s a glossy, highly regulated event, broadcast in 75 countries around the world on major channels such as ESPN in the US and Sky Sports in the UK.
“The Drone Racing League is a global circuit of professional drone racers, so we take the very best pilots in the world and we stage large-scale events with complex three-dimensional racecourses in interesting spaces,” explains Nicholas Horbaczewski, CEO of the Drone Racing League (DRL).
“People call drone racing the real-life video game; it has elements of e-sports and it has elements of real-life racing and I think we can adapt the best of those worlds and continue to grow what we are doing. Our goal is to build a major global sport and that’s what we are setting out to do.”
Drone racing: from amateur to professional
While the neon-lit world of the DRL is taking the sport to epic places, drone racing began as a humble affair run by enthusiasts.
“The sport of drone racing actually emerged about five years ago,” says Horbaczewski. “It cropped up in places like Australia and France first, and it really spread around the globe.
“I first encountered drone racing in early 2015 and by then it was a global community of folks who were drone racing in underground races; they’d meet up in fields and parking lots and race home-made drones.”
With the sport ready with a strong, underground following, Horbaczewski set about turning it into something that could be enjoyed by the masses.
“What the DRL has come in and done is professionalised it,” he says. “We developed professional equipment to enable the racing, so we developed all our own technology in both the drones and the radio systems, and then we built the professional global circuit, found content distribution for it through top-tier broadcasters and brought it to a mainstream audience.”
Making drone racing a sport
The early form of drone racing was certainly competitive and entertaining, but it didn’t have the standardised qualities required for it to be recognised as, or to function as, a televised sport.
“The reality is that when we started DRL, which was just about two years ago now, the real challenge was that the technology to do this didn’t exist,” explains Horbaczewski.
“While there was casual, amateur drone racing going on, there was no professional-level equipment that would allow you to do the event with the level of reliability that you need for a spectator sport, and frankly for it to be really considered sport at all.”
As a result, the DRL was initially a technology company, developing its own custom racing drones and radio systems to meet the needs of the fast-paced sport.
“We spent our first year in stealth developing technology, patenting innovations around drones, around radio systems and so that was really the major challenge,” he says.
“Once we had developed the technology we started doing the races, and we discovered that it’s very challenging to film the racing, because you have drones the size of dinner plates going 120km an hour through a hallway, and so we had to develop new systems to film them.”
However, once the DRL had developed the systems, they didn’t find it hard to get major broadcasters onboard.
“Once we had both those pieces and we showed it to the ESPN and Sky, they got very excited and got behind us right away,” he adds. “So the real challenge wasn’t convincing them, it was being able to actually do it and show it to them and have them understand potential of drone racing.”
The F1 of drones
Consumer and professional drones have seen an explosion in recent years, with rapid advancements in technology and capabilities, however they’re cumbersome, slow-moving lumps compared to the racing drones of the DRL.
“Racing drones are very different from the kind of camera drones you’d go out and buy on the high street; these are very specialised craft,” says Horbaczewski. “I would say camera drones that people buy are sort of like lorries: they’re a functional craft with a very specific purpose. These racing drones are like Formula 1 cars: they’re built for speed, performance and sport.”
And like Formula 1 cars, the racing drones are constantly being improved and updated.
“The technology in the drone space broadly is moving so quickly. The one we race in the 2017 season is called the Racer 3, although that name is misleading; it’s one of many, many iterations of the drone,” he explains.
Racing drones are like Formula 1 cars: they’re built for speed, performance and sport
“The reality is between every one of our events we’ll make a change or improvement of the drone. So even during the course of the season we’re updating the drone. We did a massive overhaul between 2016 and 2017, and likely will do the same thing between 2017 and 2018.
“I do think the analogy to car racing is a good one in that way in that we are really pushing the boundaries of speed and performance in drones, and I think those advancements will find an opportunity to be out in the broader commercial world in drones as time moves on.”
However, it’s not just the drones that the DRL had to develop. Each drone requires two different radio systems: one that broadcasts the video feed to the pilot’s FPV headset so they can see where the drone is going, and one that provides an uplink from the pilot’s controller so that they can operate the drone. And developing systems that could effectively meet these needs was not an easy challenge.
“The video transmission has to be ultralow latency; it has to have less than 16 milliseconds of latency so the pilot will be able to fly, and the control system has to be completely uninterrupted.
“We race indoors in complex spaces that weave through buildings, where the drones at times will be a kilometre or more away from the pilot, separated by many feet of walls in concrete and reinforced steel,” explains Horbaczewski.
“A radio system that allows the drone to operate under those tight parameters in these complex and dense space simply just didn’t exist, so we had to create it; we have a number of patents on radio systems and radio design that emerged from our work to develop a radio system that would facilitate this kind of racing.”
Pro drone racers
Away from the kit, drone racing also presents significant demands on the pilots. You might have had a spin on a quadcopter, but that’s nothing compared to the challenge of controlling an unassisted racing drone.
“It is extremely hard to race drones; these are fully manual drones, so there’s no stabilisation, there’s no computer-assistance in flying, so they’re truly controlling power to the four different motors and controlling all the dimensions of flight that way,” he says. “Learning to fly a racing drone is challenging, to reach the professional levels you really have to be very exceptional at flying drones.”
However, while you might think the DRL pilots are all seasoned drone pilots, they actually come from a variety of different backgrounds.
“Some of them are people who were very into RC aeroplanes and helicopters, so have that remote control flying experience; some of them are people who are very into speed sports, so a number of our pilots come from either motorcycle racing or car racing, and then some of them are just gamers; they’re people who are very good at video games and can translate that skill to racing drones,” explains Horbaczewski.
“In fact, one of the pilots in the league this year qualified for his spot by winning a video game tournament. We have a simulator that teaches you how to fly a racing drone without having to join a lot of physical drones, and so we did a contest where people compete on the simulator and he won that, earned his spot in the league. He actually did very well this season.”
What makes a good drone racing course?
The missing piece of the drone racing puzzle is, of course, the courses. And thanks to the three-dimensional nature of the sport, the DRL can host its races in some fairly unorthodox locations.
“We’ve raced in everything from an NFL stadium to an abandoned mall to Alexandra Palace in London,” he says. “We try to take full advantage of the fact that our sport has that wonderful unique element, and so we race in very diverse spaces.”
However, this doesn’t mean that every space is suitable for drone racing.
“You need certain things to make a space work for drone racing: it’s got to be big enough, so we need quite a bit of space because the drones are going very, very fast and it needs to be complex enough to create interesting lines for them to race through,” Horbaczewski says.
“But we try to get as creative as we possibly can with the venues we bring in, and we look at a lot of different spaces. Alexandra Palace is the perfect example of the kind of unique space which is perfectly suited for drone racing, but would not have hosted any other kind of racing sport in the past.”
Onwards and upwards
With the DRL’s second season already airing, Horbaczewski has big plans for the sport’s growth.
“It’s sort of onward and upward for us. We went from five events in 2016 to six events in 2017, and we did our first races outside of the United States, we did a race in Munich and a race in London, so we are expanding our geographic footprint,” he says. “The 2017 season will be broadcast on TV in over 75 countries, and we were on about 40 in 2016, so we’re almost doubling the number of countries that we’ll be reaching with our content.”
In time, drone racing could even become as popular as F1.
“People call drone racing the real-life video game; it has elements of e-sports and it has elements of real-life racing, and I think we can adapt the best of those worlds and continue to grow what we are doing,” he says. “Our goal is to build a major global sport and that’s what we are setting out to do.”