The Drone Racing League Must Turn Its Anonymous Pilots Into Stars
"You still get the same butterflies before you race."
A.J., a competitive drone racer, is in good spirits. The 35-year-old, who goes by the racing name Awkbots, is on a whirlwind international tour as part of the Drone Racing League. Sat in London’s Victorian-era Alexandra Palace, he watches as practice drones whizz round the intricate racecourse ahead of the world championship race. It’s a far cry from his motocross days.
“You still get the same butterflies before you race, still get that same adrenaline rush, your heart will start beating,” he tells Inverse. “But it’s harder to mess up in motocross, whereas with this, it’s very easy. All it takes is one little slip of that finger, and you’re done for the rest of the race. You have to really control your emotions.”
Awkbots is competing in the second season of the league, which has rapidly grown to become the biggest organization in drone racing as other leagues have fallen away. Set to peremiere at 8 p.m. Tuesday in the United States on ESPN 2, this season will see 16 pilots competing at six venues in North America and Europe, flying through neon gates round specially-designed courses.
Each competitor uses exactly the same drone, a Racer3. The league worked with manufacturers to build a drone capable of reaching a speed of 80 miles per hour in under one second. The polycarbonate shell provides a protective layer, but the league expects to get through a staggering 500 drones in every single race, smashing them to pieces during practice runs. Fortunately, each new drone takes just two hours to re-build by the DRL team.
“We change the Racer every time we have a race,” Ryan Gury, director of product drone racing for the league, tells Inverse. “Every time we go somewhere we learn something new and we make a modification. This is technically Racer3.1, by mid-summer we have a plan to make it 3.5, it’ll evolve bit-by-bit.”
These aren’t your garden variety drones. They’re powered by a five cell, 1800 mAh battery that provides extreme performance, but at the expense of flight time. The battery has to power everything, including the motors, the 200 color-changing LEDs that identify the racers, and the camera transmitting back to the racers. That means it’ll only fly for around two minutes per charge, so DRL courses are designed to pack as much action as possible into a race that’s normally over in just under a minute.
“We aim to have a proper long line that engages passing, areas that are tight, 3D. We have gates that require you to go upside down, inverted,” says Gury. “We really care about 360 racing in a 3D environment so that the race is compelling, it’s engaging enough for everyone.”
There’s big money in this nascent league. Last year’s season reached 75 million viewers around the world, with around 30 million watching over broadcast networks and 45 million watching on digital platforms. On Monday, DRL announced a round of series B investor funding worth $20 million. New investors include British broadcaster Sky and Chinese venture capital firm CRCM Ventures, expected to help expand the league further than ever before.
“People call drone racing the sport of the future, and we really try to embrace that moniker because not only is it a futuristic sport, it’s flying robots whizzing through a course at high speed, but it’s also the way we’re building the business,” CEO and league founder Nicholas Horbaczewski tells Inverse. “We’re blurring these lines between the digital and the real, between sports and entertainment.”
Just like the league itself, the profile of each pilot has risen over the last year. Just two years ago, Awkbots was doing motocross races in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, getting paid by the race. That all changed when a friend tipped him off about a drone race in Hamilton, Ontario: Awkbots had experience of flying drones as he used to use them to film motocross races.
Now, he’s flying round the world, battling head to head in far-flung locations for drone racing fame. The first time he left the United States was during the league’s first season, when he raced in Dubai.
“Sixteen-hour flight, it was rough!” he says. “It was a culture shock a little bit, wasn’t as bad as I thought it was gonna be, everyone spoke English.”
Like many of the pilots, Awkbots tends to find regulars at bars will recognize him, even if they’re not avid drone racing fans.
“It’s just now starting to happen when you go out in public and get kind of recognized,” Awkbots says.
“People that sit at a bar and watch ESPN, they identify us,” Adma20, a pilot from Grand Prairie, Texas, tells Inverse.
“I walked in and just happened to have a sponsor shirt on, and he was like ‘what do you do?,’ and I’m like ‘oh I race drones for a living,’” says Awkbots. “Later that night he’ll hit me up and be like, ‘I saw you on ESPN! It didn’t click until just now!’”
The pilots hang out in a backstage area, where a monitor provides a feed of each drone’s camera in real time:
Although the racers never touch the drones themselves, it’s in this area where they compare customizations to their transmitters and the virtual reality-like goggles that wrap around the head.
Everything in DRL is fine tuned for a top entertainment experience. The cameras that run along wires stretched across the ceiling can move at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour, so the film crew can both track and move ahead of drones mid-race.
But for the time being, the races aren’t live. Instead, a GoPro sits inside each drone underneath the live feed camera. After the race, the footage is retrieved from each aircraft and stitched together. With current technology, using a single high-quality camera would have a detrimental impact on pilots’ reaction times, but never say never.
“The one thing we really care about is low latency,” Gury says. “In the future, I think we’ll see more higher-def video, but the most important thing is the pilot skill, the video latency, and making sure it’s 1:1 with what they expect.”
Live or not live, DRL’s new partnerships will allow for innovative new collaborations across multiple platforms, merging broadcast video and on-demand streaming. The fact that DRL is so new means it’s well positioned to take advantage of new technologies without worrying about existing partnerships.
“I always try to avoid getting pigeonholed into saying ‘we’re gonna try to build the next x,’ or ‘it’s gonna be just like this sports league you already know,’” Horbaczewski says. “I actually think we have the opportunity to build something completely unique with this.”
As for the pilots, DRL has already been a mindblowing experience. It’s hard to say what they want for the future.
“We never saw us even getting this far,” Awkbots says. “We saw it as ‘hey, let’s go play with toy helicopters and make some cool videos,’ that’s as far as I ever saw it. And now we’re here, racing in London, England for lots of money.”
Here’s the full U.S. TV schedule for the DRL’s second season: