Human beings have always been fascinated with pushing the limits. So, it’s no surprise that the Drone Racing League is here. We’ve always wanted to go faster, higher and further than we thought ever possible. When all we had were our own two feet, we had foot races. When the age of oceangoing ships came along, we all looked to see which of us could cross the broadest seas the fastest. The industrial revolution came and gave birth to the internal combustion engine and that’s when we really got into gear.
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We pushed the limits of possibility ever further and further over the years. To the point of such incredible shows of technological performance as Formula 1, Nascar, Enduro, Motocross and plenty others. These high-octane, adrenaline-fuelled racing competitions have kept us mesmerised for decades.
To this day, still continue to be hugely popular across the world. New times bring new things and so those living in today’s digital age have been asking themselves – what’s next? The answer is finally here and that’s the Drone Racing League.
The Drone Racing League, or DRL, is a professionally operated league of competitive racing whereby individual pilots operate their first-person-view drones along three-dimensional racecourses at high speeds. Reaching and surpassing 80 mph, ever heard of a little franchise called Star Wars? Then think of it as something a lot like pod-racing. On meth.
Let’s take a look at the hottest new entrant in the world of competitive sports. We’ll delve into its origins and inspiration, the drones they compete with, who the pilots are, who is tuning in to watch the action and everything in-between. You don’t want to miss this, so grab some hot chocolate with marshmallows and get comfy.
All set? Good. Let’s get right to it.
Origins of the Drone Racing League
Drones are a fairly recent addition to the public consciousness. A drone, by definition, is an airborne craft that’s piloted remotely by a person located on the ground. Even at great distances out of their line of direct sight. We were all familiar with remote-controlled toy cars and rather clunky RC choppers that could at least go upwards.
It was only until around ten years ago that technology allowed for the development of the drones we see today – faster, lighter and infinitely more manoeuvrable than anything we’ve seen before. Companies such as Amazon even picked them up as potential package delivery systems.
As usual, it was the nerdy ones among us who first saw the awesome potential these little marvels had. They would hold informal drone racing sessions among their friends, or guilds, or whatever it is they were into. It took the keen insight, know-how and vision of three men to develop what we now know as the Drone Racing League.
The official founder of DRL is Nicholas Horbaczewski, who had previously worked as the CRO of Tough Mudder. Nicholas had first heard of professional drone racing’s potential as a concept from Dan Kanes, who had actually been preparing a pitch for just such an enterprise as far back as early 2014. These two then linked up with Justice Laub, who brought a knowledge of marketing and business development to the table.
Ryan Gury joined up with the team later on and was the mind behind the designing and building of the league’s drones. Ryan Gury currently serves as DRL’s director of product.
Their idea generated quite a bit of interest from forward-looking investors. With the owner of the Miami Dolphins, Stephen Ross, putting up $1 million towards the league’s establishment. Lux Capital and RSE Ventures combined to provide an additional $12 million. MGM Television wasn’t to be left behind, as they also entered into an investment arrangement with DRL whereby they would develop TV programming and related content related to the league’s racing events and the pilots who participated in them. Hearst Ventures, CAA Ventures and Strauss Zelnick also contributed to this round of early investment.
Corporate and investor support for the league has grown exponentially since then and continues to grow today. Giant organizations such a wrestling’s WWE, as well as other corporations such as Sky, Allianz, and Liberty Media have also bought stakes in the budding sporting event. CRCM Ventures has also come aboard, spearheading the sport’s anticipated expansion into the Chinese market.
All these early investors haven’t been disappointed by the league’s performance thus far and those in the know have also come to acknowledge just how innovative a production it is. It has received multiple awards and recognition from across the board. Fast Company picked out the Drone Racing League to be on its list of Most Innovative Companies. Its been named third on its rundown of Most Innovative Sports Company of 2017.
These acknowledgments placed DRL alongside companies such as Google, Amazon and Apple. Cynopsis Sports Media named it 2017’s Most Innovative Sports Production and the ‘Ad Age A-List & Creativity Awards’ named DRL the ‘Startup to Watch.’
Season One of the Drone Racing League
Once everything was finally put in place. The Drone Racing League kicked off its first season of activity in January of 2016. This inaugural season featured five racing events in total. As you would expect in a sport involving such versatile and manoeuvrable machines such as the drones are. The courses used weren’t your ordinary, race-around-a-circle type of racetracks. They took place at various locations all over the United States including an abandoned mall in Los Angeles, a New York laboratory, an auto plant in Detroit, a paper mill situated in Hamilton. As well as the HardRock Stadium, home of the NFL’s Miami Dolphins. Sponsors such as Bud Light came aboard to support this launch season.
The first season was a big hit right off the bat. SkySports, ProsiebenSat 1 and even ESPN all broadcast its progress across over 40 countries all over the world. Incredibly, over 75 million people tuned in to watch the action and related content whether on TV or on various online platforms.
The eventual winner of the first season’s fast-paced action was Jordan ‘Jet’ Tomkins, who hails from Fort Collins, Colorado. He beat the competition to receive a well-earned $100,000 contract, becoming the very first drone piloting professional the world has ever seen. In addition to this, he also earned an automatic place in the following season’s line-up of competitors. Things were off to a flying start for the league.
Season Two of the Drone Racing League
The second appearance by the Drone Racing League on the world’s screens started off on June 20, 2017. ESPN took on the role of major broadcaster, in partnership with SkySports, ProSieben Sat 1, OSN and Disney XD. They beamed the action all the way to 75 countries and there were an additional 16 hours of original DRL content for all the fans out there.
This season’s races took place in locations that weren’t any less interesting and challenging than the first season’s, this time even going beyond the borders of the United States. These included the Sunlife Stadium in Miami, a disaster and emergency response training center in Atlanta, a paper mill in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, a New Orleans float storage warehouse, London’s well-known Alexandra Palace and even an abandoned factory for motorcycles in Munich, Germany.
The event held at the Alexandra Palace had Allianz as the headline sponsor and the Allianz World Championship was the very first drone competition to feature an active betting market run by Paddy Power Betfair. Using the Betfair Sportsbook app, you could place your bets on the heat winners individually as well as the overall grand champion outcome.
The competition was fierce and the action was intense, but Jet managed to edge out fellow pilot Gab707 in the final’s last heat to lay claim to the title of World’s fastest drone pilot for a second consecutive year.
Aside from the Allianz, the title sponsor, other organizations also came on board for this season including Amazon Prime Video, Swatch, Toy State, FORTO Coffee Shots and quite fittingly, the U.S. Airforce itself. With their own drone programs in operation, perhaps they were scouting for some undiscovered drone pilot talent to add to their ranks?
Drones of the Drone Racing League
Now we get to the good stuff – the drones themselves. DRL’s founder and current CEO Nicholas Horbaczewski laid out the league’s reasoning behind the decision to have all the racers use the same drone as they race each other. They develop all the drones piloted in the races themselves and this is in order to even out the playing field as much as possible.
In many other competitive racing competitions such as Formula 1, various manufacturers produce the best car they can for their drivers to participate in the races with. Which can sometimes raise the question of whether a race winner won due to their superior driving ability or simply had a better vehicle to work with. DRL wanted it to be plain that when a pilot won a race, it was because they were the best pilot out there that day.
The Drone Racing League has developed two drone types for use in their events. So far, the Racer2 which took to the air in 2016 and the Racer3 which was used in 2017.
The Racer2 Racing Drone
In its first season, DRL would head out to each of their events with 100 Racer2 drones in tow. This is to ensure there was always a drone to be deployed should it be needed. The Racer2 had a relatively short battery life. Lasting only about 2 to 3 minutes at a time. This was, obviously, due to the massively demanding task they were put to in the duration of each race. With speeds topping out at an impressive 80 mph. Add on to that the fact that this drone was significantly heavier than the average racing drone due to the LED panels covering the craft. Which was to enable easier visibility and the identification of individual pilots.
A downside of the Racer2 (or upside, depending on how you look at these things) was the fact that its body had exposed electrical components, making it prone to damage in the case of collisions or crashes.
The Racer3 Racing Drone
2017 we saw the introduction of the next step in DRL drone evolution – the Racer3. It was more agile and powerful than its older brother. Capable of reaching heights of anywhere between 6 to 8 kilometres. Carrying over 16 pounds of weight and accelerating from 0 – 85 MPH in under a single second. Crazy!
To mitigate the Racer2’s weaknesses when it came to collisions, the Racer3 was fitted with a hard canopy in order to protect its inner parts. You won’t be able to find the Racer3 at your local Sports and Hobby store. But they collaborated with Toy State to develop a commercially available quadcopter later last year.
Drone Racing League’s Director of Product, Ryan Gury, together with his team of engineers put their heads together to come up with the RacerX in June of 2017. The RacerX pushed the boundaries of what we believed was possible when it came to drone technology. RacerX weighed in lightly at less than two pounds. It set the Guinness World Record for Fastest Ground Speed for a Remote-controlled, Battery-powered Quadcopter. Hitting a top speed of 179.6 MPH. Although the officially recorded time was 163.5 MPH.
During the prototype testing rounds of the RacerX, the drones would literally burst into balls of fire. This was due to the massive amounts of energy it used up as it reached its peak levels of acceleration. Awesome!
Pilots of the Drone Racing League
As we all know, a big part of the excitement of any competitive sport is the fact that there will be winners and losers. And everybody’s doing their best to come out on top. That’s where the people behind the drones come in – the drone pilots themselves.
Drone racing isn’t your ordinary sport and so it calls for extraordinary people to compete at the highest levels. Lightning-quick reflexes, excellent spatial awareness, a steady hand. A cool nerve is a must if you’re to even consider taking up the challenge. Here are this season’s heroes behind the controls, in no particular order.
GAB707 – CANADA
He was born in Switzerland but plies his trade out of Canada. He’s been a big part of the sport since the very beginning and doesn’t look to be slowing down one bit. Possessing a steely nerve and incredible focus, he strikes fear into all who line up against him and his drones.
NUBB – USA
Coming out of Nashville, Tennessee, this pilot brings an unmistakable aggression to every dive gate, hairpin turn and throttle he puts his hands to.
WILD WILLY – USA
As the official COX pilot, he placed 3rd overall in both in the 2016 and 2017 seasons. He studies at Georgia Tech, where he majors in Aerospace Engineering.
A_NUB – USA
This self-taught engineer and accomplished drone designer. A_NUB has a mastery of complex racing lines that has seen him attain more podium finishes than any other pilot in the DRL.
ADD1 – ENGLAND
This pilot blew onto the drone racing scene in 2016 when he made an exhilarating sweep of Level-2. As one who used to race competitively in motocross. This pilot is definitely no stranger to extreme speeds.
FPV PROVO – USA
As the longest-running competitor in the DRL, this pilot has all the experience required to be a formidable opponent on any race day. Clean flight lines accompanied by flashes of bold passing whenever the chance presents itself place him on a level all to himself.
MCSTRALLE – GERMANY
An aggressive flying nature with rapid starts off the line and ever pushing the limits of a drone’s capabilities. He’s the one you call when you want a new course record.
NURK – USA
This NIKKO pilot takes to the skies with a deceptive flourish. Which can spell disaster for any pilots that try to keep up with his maneuvers.
JAWZ – USA
After taking first place in the DRL Simulator’s DRL Tryouts, this pilot took 7th place in 2017. Showing that virtual pilot skills can translate into real-world competitions.
UFO – USA
A gamer first spotted in the DRL Tryouts of 2018. This pilot meditates in preparation for each race and holds his nerve in every competition.
SHAGGYFPV – NETHERLANDS
This software programmer and fan of action sports is a master of the 360 downward spiral.
UPSIDEDOWN FPV – GERMANY
A strategic mindset and well-honed killer instinct make him a terror to the competition.
JOHNNYFPV – USA
Still holding a grudge over the 2016 season which he thinks he should have won. This pilot comes back this year after a break in 2017, hungry for payback.
DUNKAN – FRANCE
This world-renowned plane and RC helicopter pilot from Provence, France. Possesses immense natural talent, which shows in all of his racing outings.
Standing tall as the 2016 and 2017 DRL champion, his record tells us everything we need to know about him.
ROBOGENESIS – USA
Flying under the Swatch banner, this gamer turned pro-drone pilot burst onto the scene by decimating the competition in the 2018 Swatch Tryouts on the DRL Simulator.
DINO – NETHERLANDS
This relative newcomer to the world of DRL started off by participating in Taekwondo, gaming and RC car races.
You can catch all these sky-jockeys doing what they do best in the ongoing 2018 season of the Drone Racing League.
Format and Broadcasting Operations
The DRL seeks to become a truly global sporting event. And it sources flying talent from all over the world to participate in its original course events. One of the greatest ways it uses to get the very best pilots out there is through the DRL Simulator.
The DRL Simulator is a program you can download on Steam and practice flying the actual DRL courses in order to sharpen your skills. Those who stand out in the Simulator will get an invite to participate in upcoming seasons of DRL, making it a pretty much open-access competition to get into.
Now, this is how Drone Racing League events are carried out. Multiple heats are held per event with each pilot being awarded points after each heat depending on their finishing place. After all the heats have been run through, the one with the most overall points is declared the champion.
DRL makes a film of all the races for a broadcast audience. These racing drones fly at speeds of up to 95 mph. And so the management designs and takes care of all the elements required for its broadcasting ecosystem. Including all the race timings and lengths. Each event will usually call for the use of between 50 to 60 cameras with the drones themselves carrying two onboard cameras each. For pilot navigation, an SD analog HS1177 camera is used, while the GoPro Session 5 is what they use in post-production.
It was Ryan Gury’s team that developed the proprietary LED rigs and radio system that were described in Wired as being ‘Tron-like.’ We like as well.
Are You Ready for the Drone Racing League?
Professional drone racing has fallen upon the racing sports world like a lightning bolt out of the clear blue sky. And nobody is more electrified about it than the millions of fans around the world tuning in each season. With multiple broadcasters beaming their signal worldwide, dozens of streaming services and hours of content online. It’s never been easier to get your fix of high-flying, adrenaline pumping action than it is today.
Should you feel the urge to try your hand at professional drone racing – what’s been described as an ‘insane new sport’ in TIME magazine. Then, you’re in luck, because it’s easier than you think it is. Simply head on to your Steam account and download the DRL Simulator. This is where you will be able to hone your talent and show off your skills. If you have what it takes in the virtual sessions, THEY’LL come looking for YOU. If you already know you’ve got the skills and want to cut through the formalities, simply head on to their website and sign up ( https://thedroneracingleague.com/pilots/ ) for more info on how you can step up to the plate.
Technology is pushing the boundaries of every aspect of our lives, so it’s about time we had a competitive racing event that can keep up with the lightning speeds we live, work and play in today. The sky’s the limit when it comes to drone racing and you can be sure that it’s only going to get bigger, better and more incredible with each season that goes by. Don’t get left behind.