A day at the drone races

Without doubt, the best part of Star Wars: Episode I was the pod racing. I appreciate that might seem like a backhanded compliment, like saying that the best thing about eating insects is the wing, but I’m being sincere here. Pod racing looked genuinely exciting: a science-fiction take on a classic sport.

It’s hard not to think of that when you go to your first drone race. The Drone Racing League (DRL) was set up in 2015 and has gone from strength to strength, this season attracting a global audience of 33 million viewers on broadcast media via channels such as Sky Sports and ESPN; a healthy number topping up the 43 million online views the sport has generated. Even Muse frontman Matt Bellamy is a fan.

And you can see why: it’s genuinely exhilarating to watch – if somewhat hard to follow in person. Drones zip through the sky at 80 miles per hour, going through hoops on a track that’s seemingly invisible. They go flat out through three rooms, darting round corners in a tight group, before collapsing exhausted into a basket at the end of the course. The whole spectacle is over a minute later, a fresh batch of drones is collected and the next heat begins.[gallery:1]

After watching a few heats, I had the chance to sit down with Nicholas Horbaczewski, the founder of the DRL, at the finals in Alexandra Palace. The CEO chanced upon amateur drone racing after leaving his post as senior vice president of revenue and business development at Tough Mudder. “I ended up seeing it in a field in Long Island just outside of NYC,” he explains. “It was an amateur race – a couple of friends who’d got together on a weekend with some homemade drones and [were] racing circles in a field. I honestly thought it was one of the coolest things I’d ever seen.

“Our first somewhat painful discovery was that the technology to do this at a professional level really didn’t exist.”

“It reminded me of video games and science-fiction movies brought to life. What I saw in that field was very amateur. You know, the drones were homebuilt, they’d fall out the sky, they were inconsistent… but there were these moments of greatness and I thought there has to be a way to turn this into a mainstream sport.”

Just like those falling drones, he was about to be brought down to Earth fast with the complexity of the undertaking. “Our first somewhat painful discovery was that the technology to do this at a professional level really didn’t exist,” he recalls. “There were no commercial off-the-shelf racing drones you could use for racing; there were no radio systems that would support these kind of elaborate tracks at the level of reliability you’d need, so we became a technology company.”[gallery:3]

To this day, more than half of the team is devoted to technology and engineering, working on the drones, circuit boards, frames and radio systems. But it goes beyond that. “The next thing we discovered was that even when you get the technology to work, it takes a certain amount of finesse to film a drone going at 80mph through a 3D course in a way that audiences can follow and feel compelled by.”

Turning pro

Although the sport is constantly evolving, they seem to have struck upon a winning formula, as 2016 DRL champion Jordan Temkin can testify. “I know there are fans, because there are people who come up to me in airports,” he explains when I sit down with him before the first heat. “I never expected that to happen in my life. I started doing this because of a love of flight. It’s amazing it’s grown to being what it is today.”

“Last year I got a $100,000 salary for winning the 2016 championship. So I’m now paid by DRL to practice drones, be at the top of my level and not worry about rent,” he explains. Temkin’s daily routine nowadays involves flying, fixing and posting footage to his YouTube channel. Oh, and charging batteries. There are a lot of batteries to charge – that’s kind of an occupational hazard when racing drones have a flight time of just two minutes.[gallery:5]

That’s part of the reason why the races are so short, and the structure of the DRL has adapted accordingly. It’s a series of heats, where points are allocated for placement rather than time. That’s another necessity of the format, too, according to Temkin, “because it’s still so volatile. There are so many variables, and it’s hard to say that person won by X seconds. You won’t see the same person win every time, that just doesn’t happen.”

And there are crashes. You’d better believe there are crashes. “Drones aren’t the most elegant way to fly,” explains Temkin. “It’s not using wings for lift, it’s beating the air into submission.”

“Drones aren’t the most elegant way to fly,” explains Temkin. “It’s not using wings for lift, it’s beating the air into submission.”

“In a car you have left, right, forward, back. Here you have every possible vector – there’s more chance for crashing,” he continues. “And we fly with these goggles and the camera – you’re like a horse with blindfolds. It’s only pointing in one direction, so if there are two guys next to me I don’t know they’re there. If we go through the gate at the same time, we’re going to collide. That’s a huge part of it, you have to be able to brush it off: ‘okay, next race, here we go’.” A steady supply of some 600 replacement drones is on hand to compensate for the tiny batteries and frequent crashes. “If you crash they just throw ‘em in a pile and grab the next one.”[gallery:17]

But there’s a practical reason why they’re blinkered like horses – and it’s got nothing to do with being spooked by other racers. “If we could turn, it would cause problems with flying, because our view tells us what is our pitch, what is our roll angle.” In other words, if they could move their heads, they’d have no idea which way they were facing.

Bars to entry

Temkin trains back at home in Colorado, and the Rockies make for a great practice bed. In fact, you’re at a big disadvantage if you live in the cities. “You can’t fly in LA, DC, New York,” he explains. But in the mountains away from people? “My rule of thumb is if you’re allowed to shoot guns, I’m allowed to play with my toys.”

“Honestly, we built the first version of the simulator because I was destroying too many drones,” laughs Horbaczewski.

But the laws surrounding drone flight do put a damper on what is otherwise quite an easy sport to get into: it’s simply heavily weighted against those living in built-up areas. Perhaps mindful of this, the Drone Racing League came up with a computer simulation that you can download free of charge from the organisation’s website.[gallery:11]

“Honestly, we built the first version of the simulator because I was destroying too many drones,” laughs Horbaczewski. “But I played it for a while and was like ‘wow, I’m a lot better than I was.’” This year, for the first time, one of the professional competitors was selected via a competition for their skills in the simulator, rather than through direct drone scouting – something that Horbaczewski describes as “the blurry line between the digital and the real”.

Some would say the act of remotely piloting a drone already sits comfortably in that space (“When you see you’re too high for a gate, you kind of duck,” muses Temkin), but there’s another way too: most of the professional pilots know each other through the active online community. “I’ve raced them inside DRL, outside of DRL,” Temkin explains. These aren’t rivals, but friends who happen to be competing for the same prize money. “You know: all of these people are my friends.”

It’s possible that the growing interest and money flying into the sport will put a strain on these relationships over time, of course. Horbaczewski name-checks the likes of Sky, Hearst, MGM, Lux Capital and F1 owners Liberty Media among the sport’s investors, with additional sponsorship from Amazon Prime Video, Swatch and Bud Lite. For now, though, the sport is just continuing to build naturally at its own pace. “We never need to get to the finished product, it just continues to evolve,” says Horbaczewski.[gallery:10]

What sort of changes might we see in the long run? “A rule has to be broken and abused to be changed,” answers Temkin, considering the frequent midair collisions. “Right now we say ‘too bad, it’s part of the sport’, because we’re blindfolded and it’s not anyone’s fault necessarily, it just happens. I think eventually you might have overtaking rules like in car racing. We’re not at that point yet, and I don’t think we’re going to be there for a while because of these limitations, plus you know: we don’t have brakes.”

Listening to that answer, I’m reminded of something Horbaczewski told me when I first met him: “You can’t just be a sport that looks like other sports but futuristic, you need to be something truly novel and unique.” With one-minute races, blinkers and no brakes, you can safely say that he’s achieved his goal with the DRL: now it’s up to the public to decide whether they let drone racing into their busy sporting calendars.

The Drone Racing League is currently being broadcast on Sky Sports Mix

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