The legal dos and don’ts of drone flying are about as clear as Louisiana swamp water. Drone flying is becoming an increasingly popular pastime, and it’s the rare pilot who knows the ins and outs of local laws and drone courtesy. But drones are about to become mainstream with an ESPN-sponsored splash, and the cofounder of the International Drone Racing Association (IDRA) hopes that its big races will clear up all the regulatory confusion.
Scot Refsland, founder and chairman of the IDRA, is doing pretty well for himself. He helps commission drone races around the world, including this summer’s ESPN race and the $1 million drone race in Dubai earlier this year. Dubai’s event woke people up to the fact that drones won’t just change the way people work, drones are going to change the world of sports, too.
Drones are still on the cusp of popularity. They’re like stock cars before NASCAR, or, Refsland tells Inverse, skateboarding before the X Games. In the future, professional IDRA pilots will be the Tony Hawk of drones, and sanctioned drone flyover parks will be the public skateparks.
“Skateboarding really disrupted everything, and now we’ve got big skateparks all over the place. Now there are new up and coming sports, and drone racing is one of them,” says Refsland.
The ESPN-broadcasted IDRA race on Governors Island in New York City this summer will introduce drone racing to a much wider audience. Some of that audience will be unfamiliar with drones, and an even larger segment of that audience will be unfamiliar with the common courtesy and rules in the world of drones.
Low-level drone ownership is populated with people who “have no idea about drone citizenship, they have no idea about what is acceptable use, they have no idea that there is a law in New York City, because they just read on Amazon that ‘hey, you can buy this and download this and next thing you know you’re flying in the air,’” Refsland says.
Whereas early skateboarders were running around putting layers of wax on every sidewalk curb and staircase handrail, drone pilots are flying (sometimes haphazardly) in crowded parks in defiance of local regulations. The IDRA hopes exposure from its races will get people interested in acceptable drone practices — and open the eyes of government officials to the fact that drone racing is here to stay.
The IDRA wants to provide the media exposure to teach people about proper drone use.
“This is our intention: Help the drone racing community have that drama and thrill, but in a really safe environment,” Refsland says, “and give a lot of the government agencies an understanding of what it means to do a drone race or drone sport in any particular area – whether it’s urban or in the middle of a field.”
Part of the draw to skateboarding was the rebel-without-a-cause disruption. When it peaked in popularity with mainstream coverage, the entire sport and attitude toward the sport changed. If the pieces of Refsland’s plan fall in place in just the right way, the IDRA might become the X Games of the drone world, clearing up the murkiness of unclear drone regulations along the way. In the meantime, people just have to tune in to the races.