We can all agree, flying a drone is fun and rewarding. However, some of us like to fly FPV (first-person view) where others prefer heads-up. An even smaller sub-group, of the FPV variety, prefer to race more than fly, and that desire started drone racing. Over the past few years, drone racing has developed from a rough idea into a serious sport with multiple leagues and airtime on ESPN.
Getting here wasn’t an easy road; just ask Scot Refsland, a technologist from the San Francisco Bay Area. He was the founder of the US Drone Nationals.
Only a few hundred people attended the first competition. But the second, held last year on New York’s Governor’s Island, was attended by a few hundred more and sponsored by the likes of GoPro,Ernst & Young, and EMC—not bad for a DIY hobby that began on the internet. Perhaps more importantly, that event debuted the sport on ESPN.
Refsland hoped the US Drone Nationals could compete with the likes of Formula 1 and NASCAR on TV, but it seems that the competition is dead. A third edition was not scheduled this summer. Websites for Refsland’s drone organizations—dronenationals.com, droneworlds.com, and dronesportsassociation.com—are all now offline, and have been so since May, according to the Internet Archive. Refsland himself has gone dark on Twitter, and repeated attempts to contact him have gone unanswered.
Even as the US Drone Nationals crumbled, another organization was there and ready to step in and keep the dream alive.
One of Refsland’s earliest competitors, the Drone Racing League (DRL), recently announced that its second season would air on ESPN. It has secured over $32 million in venture funding, along with race title sponsors like Allianz and Budweiser.
Now DRL has announced another season of racing and they are currently the leading league brand (think UFC). They will need to stay nimble however because drone racing is an idea with global appeal. There is new competition from across the pond in the form of the DR1.
The DHL Champion Series is coming back for its second year, racing FPV drones through spots across the globe including a castle in Ireland, the Mojave Bone Yards in California and even the Isle of Man. Airing on Eurosport, Fox Sports Asia and Twitch.TV, the races will be taped, starting to air in October and November
It’s coming in form of smaller events that are organized by drone pilots for drone pilots, such the recent even in Whistler’s Bend.
“At big events the pilots sometimes feel used to make it into a show,” Brown said. “We like to just do a little bit of everything.”
This includes open flight line races, freestyle competitions, X-Class racing and demos and many other events for pilots.
And it’s even coming directly head-on, in the form of new, well organized US based drone racing leagues that are trying to spin, repackage and resell the original concept.
“About six months ago we honed in on a gap in the market,” Deller added. “Everyone is an individual racer, they’re competing for who’s the best pilot, there’s tons of leagues that do that — the DRL has huge post-production TV shows. But it’s not fitting in with what’s going on in the space. We wanted to build a team-based drone racing league that was focused on the spectator.”
Therefore, Deller, Allison and Whiteker combined to create the Pro Aerial League. Two things set the Pro Aerial League apart from other drone racing competitions.
First, it’s a team competition instead of an individual competition. Six teams will take part in Saturday’s event — because of bandwidth restrictions six is the maximum number of drones that can take part in a single race — with six pilots on each team. Among the races scheduled for Saturday is a relay race, which will force teams to perform pit stops to change out batteries as the drones can fly a maximum of two minutes on a single charge.
Second, the course, which will be contained within the hockey rink at Xfinity Arena, is designed so that the drones can be easily watched by spectators.
Even with all the traction, there is no guarantee that drone racing will ever really become a professional sport.
Similarly promising quasi-athletic leagues have crashed and burned before. Take professional paintball, which seemed like a sure-fire winner at its peak in 2005. A sport in which combatants shoot at one another across an obstacle-strewn field promised a built-in audience of gun enthusiasts and video-gamers.
Regardless of the outcome, drone racing is great for the industry at large because it pushes forward innovation. Innovation that gives us new technology that can be repurposed for other drone verticals.
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