The popularity of consumer drones, or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), is undeniable. The New York Times estimated that, just this past holiday season, 400,000 of these drones were sold in the US. They’re changing the way we shoot video, capture photos, watch sports and explore new territories in 2016. And with the introduction of the Drone Racing League (DRL) on Tuesday, they can also be raced competitively.
The DRL isn’t the first-ever drone racing competition. There’s been the Drone Nationals, which is a single event in July at the California State Fair, and the Aerial Sports League (ASL), which is comprised of drone enthusiasts in the San Francisco area and isn’t exclusive to aerial races; they also battle drones in what they call “Drone Fight Club.” The DRL, on the other hand, is the only standardized league with big-money investors, like Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and Muse frontman Matt Bellamy. So far, the DRL has confirmed to Quartz that it’s raised over $8 million.
Here’s how it’ll work. In its inaugural season, the DRL will have eight pilots competing in six events. They’ll fly standardized DRL Racer 2 drones (every one provided by the league) around courses set in “abandoned malls, NFL stadiums and subway tunnels.” Each DRL Racer 2 drone will be decked out with over 100 brightly colored LED lights, so that they’re easy for spectators to follow, and race around an obstacle course at 80 mph — picture a hybrid between a remote-controlled car race and the pod races from Star Wars: Episode One.
They race around an obstacle course at 80 mph — picture a hybrid between a remote-controlled car race and the pod races from Star Wars: Episode One.
This type of drone racing is a form of FPV (first personal view) flying. It combines the physical controls of a hand-held remote with the visuals of a VR headset, as pilots won’t have direct contact with the drone. When the drones fly upside down, or weave through harrowing turns, the pilots will also feel that. They could even get nauseous. It’s like being in a flight simulator, or a real-life video game.
The DRL season will be scored similarly to the Red Bull Air Race. Pilots will be awarded a set number of points depending on where they finish each race. After the six races, the pilot with the most cumulative points wins. As for spectating, audiences will have access to a first-person view, seeing what the pilots are seeing, as well as broader visuals similar to other racing sports like NASCAR.
As of now, each DRL race will be released online in a three part video series. So it won’t be live, but this shouldn’t be a problem for audiences. BattleBots, a show that also depicts grown men operating remote controlled objects, has been reprised for a seventh season. And with its FPV, it’s likely that watching DRL on the tube will be more captivating.
So will DRL be a success? That depends on whether it can turn personal drones’ large user base into a ravenous fanbase for a new sport. That said, the sport definitely has room to grow. For starters: it’s possible to become a racing pilot. According to the DSL’s press release, “early events will be invitation only for the world’s top drone pilots,” but interested parties can apply to “Become a Pilot.”