New drone racing league wants to be next NASCAR

Drone pilots will be our next sports heroes according to the organisers of the Drone Racing League. Photo / AP
Drone pilots will be our next sports heroes according to the organisers of the Drone Racing League. Photo / AP

Competitive video gaming is a professional sport that generates more than US$700 million a year, so why not drone racing?

That's the bet Nick Horbaczewski is making by starting the Drone Racing League, with the backing of investors who include Stephen Ross, owner of the National Football League team Miami Dolphins, and Lerer Hippeau Ventures, a New York venture capital firm. Horbaczewski expects most fans to watch races online, much as they do competitive gaming in the United States, using their phones, computers-eventually even virtual-reality headsets.

Ultimately, he has ambitions of becoming a digital NASCAR for drones.

The nascent league hosted the first race of its inaugural season at Sun Life Stadium in Miami in December, shooting video of drones zooming around the giant complex from various perspectives, which will be turned into professional quality content to be shown online next month. Their aim is to evoke classic Star Wars battle scenes and grab the attention of the mainstream public.

"We're creating a whole new form of entertainment that straddles the digital and the real," Horbaczewski said.

In the last two years, drone racing has grown from a niche hobby to more serious business. Fat Shark, a virtual-reality goggles maker, sponsored a racing event this summer at the California State Fair that attracted more than 100 racers. There's also the International Drone Racing Association, based in Michigan and dedicated to setting up competitions and raising awareness of the sport.

This year, Dubai will host the first World Drone Prix, a tournament with speed and freestyle categories held by the IDRA and an organization supported by Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. In most of these events, the racers bring their own drones, and organizers depend heavily on sponsorships.

Drone racing shares a number of similarities with e-sports, the term for competitive video gaming, which lets fans watch their favorite gamers go head to head online and in stadiums. The e-sports market generated about US$750 million in revenue last year, mostly from advertising and sponsorships, according to SuperData Research, which tracks the gaming market. Meanwhile, live streams of gamers playing on such sites as Twitch generated about US$3.8 billion in 2015, SuperData said.

Horbaczewski is chasing a similar model. For now, he's focused on well-produced video content to be consumed on browsers and mobile devices, including ones that put the viewer in the pilot's seat. The startup is working on agreements with distributors to get the videos from the Miami event and beyond before more eyeballs, though Horbaczewski declined to name them.

Whether the Drone Racing League will be able to bring the sport from hobby to professional will depend on whether the company can produce and show the content live, Joost van Dreunen, chief executive officer of SuperData, said. With e- sports, for example, live streaming platforms such as Twitch led to an explosion in popularity, he said.

"A live sports event is what makes it exciting, makes it something you can connect to emotionally," he said. "Otherwise, how do you visualize the effort? Where is the drama?"

The live component will come later, said Matt Higgins, the CEO of RSE Ventures, Ross's investment arm. Horbaczewski is first working out various technical problems-including how best to capture the races, optimize the various perspectives, and weave the most interesting narrative about the pilots, Higgins said. Current drone racing videos online are interesting and novel for only 30 or 45 seconds, he said.

Horbaczewski is "first demonstrating to the world that watching a drone race in some form can be really compelling," he said. "It's still so early that I think it's the right approach."

The Drone Racing League has raised about $8 million from RSE Ventures and other investors, Horbaczewski said. The company will reveal in late January some teaser reels of the kind of videos it eventually intends to make money on. The second race (out of six for the 2016 season) will take place sometime in mid-March at the abandoned Hawthorne Mall in Los Angeles.

The Drone Racing League is unique in that it designs and builds drones for use in its races, standardizing the equipment and reducing costs for pilots. That way, they only have to worry about navigating the drones, similar to a professional race car driver. Each drone costs a couple hundred of dollars to assemble, Horbaczewksi said.

Drone racers fly quadcopters, aircraft with four propellers. The controller has two joysticks and resembles a video game console. Often, pilots wear virtual reality goggles that receive a feed from the camera embedded on the drone and maneuver as if they were in the craft itself. That first-person feed is also recorded and used as raw material for the content produced by the Drone Racing League.

At the inaugural races at Sun Life Stadium, home to the Miami Dolphins, the league set up high-definition cameras on rigs and booms throughout the course, filming the drones as they scooted by. A number of strategically installed smoke machines amped up the drama.

Pilots sat near the sidelines just off mid-field, with their drones starting from a pad above their heads. The lit-up course, about half a mile long, started out with a lap around the stadium near the pedestrian tunnels on the first level. The drones, moving as fast as 80 to 90 miles an hour, hit a couple of brightly lit checkpoints akin to those you'd see in a video game and then dove into a 10-foot-wide tunnel. They eventually popped out through another tunnel, got a blast of fresh air, before doing a sharp 180 into another tunnel leading to the concourse known as the helix. The pilots had to maneuver through twists and turns to get back to the stadium into a green-lit box for the final landing.

A dozen pilots from all over the U.S. and other countries including Brazil and Australia had arrived in Miami a couple days before the competition and had a day to familiarize themselves with the course. Eight made it to the semifinals and half reached the finals. A pit crew provided by the league was on standby to fix crashed drones and deliver new ones to the racers. Pilots receive a score based on the checkpoints they hit and how fast they finished the course in each heat-they can get points even if they crash and don't finish.

Conrad Miller, a 36-year-old racer from Boise, Idaho, said other competitions he's attended haven't come close to the Miami event. The sheer size of the course meant the drones got farther from the pilots than usual. In his first practice run, he and the three other racers on the lap with him crashed in the same exact place-the first tunnel entrance. Getting a new drone immediately after a crash added to the professionalism of the event, he said, adding that such mishaps typically require an hour of downtime. Miller, who spends 20 to 50 hours a week practicing, stumbled onto drone racing online about a year and a half ago.

"What they're doing is amazing, with the professional cameras-it's like watching a real F1 race," he said. "They're making this into a real-life video game."

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