Everyone I speak to at the Drone Racing League World Championship Race is happy about how well things are going. The pilots? Happy. The crew? Happy. Nick Horbaczewski, CEO of the Drone Racing League (DRL), which this month raised $20 million in venture capital to turn what is a niche hobby into a worldwide sport? Extremely happy, if a little red-eyed and ragged.
We’re sitting in a back room in Alexandra Palace, otherwise known as Ally Pally, an extravagant Victorian-era venue in London that was once home to balls and traveling exhibitions. This is the home for the final race of DRL’s 2017 season. Horbaczewski, who speaks fluent press release, is rattling off figures at me. “Our first season, 2016? Broadcast in over 40 countries. 30 million-plus tuned in to watch it.” This season, he says: even bigger. “You can’t just build a new sport. You don’t paint one picture and be done with it. You build it brick by brick, and there’s always more to do.” It’s a convincing spiel, even if the less-than-cheery subtext is: “We’ve got to keep moving or we’ll die.”
The momentum of FPV or first-person view drone racing is undeniable. As a hobby, it didn’t really exist four or five years ago. Then came the smartphone and gyroscopes, and accelerometers, batteries, and cameras came down in size and price, making drones affordable enough for large groups of consumers. Eventually, the most hardcore hobbyists began competing with one another.
When I first wrote about drone racing in 2015, I hung out with a dozen acolytes in a quiet forest. Now, I’m in a cathedral-sized building that was designed to entertain the leisure-obsessed masse of 19th century London. Around me, Ally Pally is being decked out in the regalia of the entertainment industry — scaffold on the walls, cables on the floor, and lights and cameras everywhere. Tomorrow night’s race is expected to draw a crowd of around 1,500. Despite what Horbaczewski says, you can build a sport. And this is how you do it.
DRL is far from the only company that’s seen an opportunity to make drone racing professional, but by most measures it’s the furthest ahead. Along with multimillion-dollar venture funding, it’s secured partnerships with household names like Amazon and BMW, while its races are broadcast by the likes of ESPN 2 and Sky Sports. (The 2017 season starts broadcasting tonight with 16 one-hour episodes.) More significantly, the DRL has put a lot of effort into injecting drone racing with a splash of drama. It personalizes its pilots, and turns each race into a spectacle.
The latter element is the most straightforward. DRL tracks are basically a series of neon-lit gates for drones to fly through, with smoke machines and strobe lighting for ambience. They brand the tracks with names like Miami Nights, Mardis Gras World, and the Boston Foundry and hire excitable commentators to narrate the races.
Horbaczewski, of course, is quick to point out that DRL’s innovations aren’t just superficial. The company, he says, has put in a lot of technical work to standardize the sport. They’ve developed their own drones that every pilot uses to create a “level playing field” for each race, and improved the technology that broadcasts live video streams to racers. “We’ve developed a fair amount of novel tech that allows us to do the racing on this scale,” says Horbaczewski. “Even the skeptics have appreciated the seriousness with which we take the sport.” (The pilots agree. Broadcasting a clean video signal from what is essentially a tiny, fast-moving helicopter that benefits from being as light as possible is no easy task, and any investment is appreciated.)
DRL has also embraced digital media as a way to engage with fans and tell stories. The league’s TV broadcasts don’t just focus on races, but include daytime TV-like vignettes about the personal journey of each pilot. Wandering around Ally Pally, I see billboards showing dramatic head shots of each racer, followed by a supposedly characteristic nickname (e.g., “The Jokester” or “The Rookie”) and a write-up of their talent. One sample bio reads: “Quick off the start podiums, and always pushing the limits, he sets course time records, but is also responsible for some of the most spectacular crashes of the season.”
The idea, I guess, is to make the races seem like great narrative struggles, with one goofy archetype competing against another like an episode of Wacky Races. It’s a little forced, but the pilots I speak to don’t mind.
Paul Nurkkala, aka Nurk (aka “The Underdog”) says building characters is par for the course for any sport born in the 21st century. “All the pro pilots have Instagrams they update regularly; they’re on YouTube, on Reddit,” he tells me. “And people like to cheer for certain individuals. You watch a soccer game or a basketball game, and there’s a person you care about, a team you care about. That’s what we’re trying to create.”
Another racer, AJ Goin, who goes by the handle Awkbots, says the DRL doesn’t shoehorn made-up narratives into its TV shows, and it protects the dignity of individual pilots. “I was in the last season, and I ended up crashing in the world championship, and ended up crying on TV and I was really worried about that, but it actually worked out well, and people admired me more for that,” he says. “The Drone Racing League does an amazing job. They’re here to make everyone look cool. It’s not like a reality show where they’re trying to trick you.”
Do the racers care that their hobby is being taken up by for-profit companies? Emphatically, no. “What that needed to go from what it was to something mainstream was a little bit of coroporatification,” says Nurk. “No one likes to say this, but, you know, we need to find ways of making a little money doing this.” He compares it to skateboarding, which made a similar journey in the ‘60s and ‘70s. “There’s still going to be that side-culture of The Man or whatever, but I think this is a positive thing overall.”
Watching a race, it’s hard to avoid comparisons to video games. DRL does nothing to avoid the parallels: its courses are reminiscent of sci-fi racing game Wipeout, with pilots steering their craft through a series of neon-lit gates at speeds of up to 120 mph. And, the company makes a flight simulator that anyone can play on their computer. It’s realistic enough that they’ve used it to recruit one of their top pilots.
At Ally Pally, there’s quite a bit of carnage. All the pilots I speak to tell me (with relish) that it’s a “very, very fast course.” The cathedral-like space of the building means there’s plenty of room for acceleration. “It’s full throttle, with lots of sweeping turns,” says Jet, the winner of DRL’s 2016 season. “Other courses have been in smaller spaces, where it’s more technical and there are more tight maneuvers.”
The track itself winds through each of the building’s main rooms in a series of tangled loops. The drones take off in a pack from a line of forward-slanted podiums at one end of the Great Hall, charge back and forth a bit, head into the smaller West Hall, then perform a U-turn in the greenhouse-like Palm court, and race back to the start. There’s no finish line to speak of. Instead, drones dive full-speed into a family-sized camping tent hung about with nets and padding. There’s a satisfying thwump when each craft hits home, and up on a podium, where the pilots sit with goggles and controllers, someone says: “Love that noise.”
The centerpiece of the course is a giant loop-de-loop in the Great Hall, which stretches nearly 100 feet up into the roof and which pilots navigate on their return leg. It’s an impressive sight, and it’s even more remarkable when you know that the racers are essentially flying it blind. Nurk explains that while the safest way to navigate this section is to pause and turn the drone to face into the loop, the quickest way is to charge straight into it and the backflip into the ceiling. It’s much quicker, but leaves the drone’s front-facing camera pointing uselessly at the walls until it flips over on the other side.
“At the beginning of today I would have said no one is going to do that in a race,” says Nurk. “They’re all going to come up, turn around, go through it, and come back down. But by the second heat people are already doing it backwards.” It’s the drone equivalent of sinking a three-pointer by throwing the ball two-handed behind your head; the sort of skill that requires a combination of confidence, muscle memory, and intuition. “You’ve got to just feel it,” says Nurk. “It’s only because of hours and hours of practice that people can know exactly where they are in space.” In other words, it’s at this point that drone racing feels most like a sport.
On the night of the race, when a line of drones sweeps up into that loop-de-loop for the first time, the crowd reacts as one: oohing and ahhing, and craning open-mouthed up at the ceiling. There’s something undeniably stirring about seeing these aircraft in motion. They whine like super-sized Jurrasic-era insects that could make off with your cat, and move in ways we’re just not used to: stopping midair and making sudden U-turns as if they were bouncing off invisible walls. In their most ordinary moments, drones just look like toys, sure. But at their most dramatic, it’s like you’re looking at CGI.
That said, the rest of the World Championship Race feels a little more familiar: there are stalls full of DRL-branded merch; food vans selling overpriced burgers; and a lot of waiting around while drones are swapped and pilots get ready. Mostly, it seems like a social event. A day out at the drone races.
Although there’s definitely a core component of drone racing fans (they tend to be male, late-teens to mid-20s, wearing a beard, a snapback, or both) there’s also plenty of families. A gaggle of pre-teens being shepherded by their parents shout at me that they “LOVE DRONES” but refuse to be drawn on the subject. One dad says he brought his son to see the races because his son loves to fly their DJI, before the son adds, without rancor, that dad likes flying it, too. (Dad grins.)
I bump into one amateur pilot, Timour Chomilier, who was at the drone race in the forest I covered back in 2015. I ask Chomilier if he’s still a regular flier. All the time he says, with the same group of people he found at UK meet-ups. It seems that even if current attempts by the DRL and other companies to take drone racing mainstream fall flat, the underground scene will still survive. “I like that it’s becoming a thing,” says Chomilier. “You can show up at a park with a drone and people won’t give you funny looks. They at least know what we’re talking about now.”
He says he’s happy about what’s happened to the sport, and how it’s evolving. “Back then we had six gates and some high-vis tape for course, and now” he says, gesturing at the lights and the crowd — “DRL has all this.”
Photography by James Vincent / The Verge