HomeDrone Racing League Will Give You a Wild Robot’s-Eye View in VR

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TIM MOYNIHAN 

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YOU MAY NOT have heard of the Drone Racing League yet. It’s not even a year old. They haven’t even released video of their first race to the public. League CEO Nick Horbaczewski says the DRL is strictly in stealth mode at the moment, planning events and preparing for a big 2016.

Next year, the league plans six races scattered across the United States. There’s also a race set for December in Miami. But don’t think about buying tickets: Horbaczewski says the DRL sees itself just as much as a production company as a sports league, with the emphasis being on producing compelling content that will make viewers feel like they’re flying. Or better yet, starring in their own sci-fi movie.

“It’s really visual, it’s really immersive, it’s engaging and fast,” says Horbaczewski. “It has all the heritage of racing, but it’s in three dimensions. Whenever I talk about drone racing, people mention the pod-racing scene in Star Wars. Or the speeder bikes on Endor. And most of that was CGI, so we have to bridge the reality of racing with peoples’ sci-fi movie expectations. And I think we can do that. That’s what we’re working on with our content … Flying robots with cameras on them. It’s pretty cool.”

Some high-profile investors agree. Earlier this year, the league announced that RSE Ventures, the venture-capital firm headed by Miami Dolphins owner Steve Ross, pitched in $1 million to help fund the league. Horbaczewski says the DRL isn’t ready to announce its full list of investors, but that there are “some exciting names on it from the sports media and entertainment space.”

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As the league prepares for a big 2016 push, it wants to make sure its drones are ready for the spotlight. The league itself builds the racing drones, all to the same specifications. Those specifications change from race to race to keep things interesting. The pilots just show up and fly without having to worry about wrecking their robots. If one crashes, the Drone Racing League’s own pit crew handles repairs and replacements.

Horbaczewski likens the league to Formula 1 or NASCAR. The drivers don’t need to worry about tuning up their engine or replacing tires. They’re just there to compete. The DRL wants to treat its pilots the same way, and there’s a perk to having the league design and supply the drones. The pilots are more likely to take risks in a race if they don’t have to worry about repairing their vehicles, which makes the race videos more exciting.

“The drone-racing world is still small enough that you can kind of keep your arms around it,” Horbaczewski says, explaining how the league intends to find new pilots. “So we know a bunch of pilots, and they know a bunch of pilots. Every day, we find somebody new on YouTube posting videos of themselves flying, and they’re an amazing pilot. And I think once we have organized competition, the system will sort of shake itself out in terms of bringing people in.”

Horbaczewski says that as time goes on, the league may need to create a feeder system to scout and recruit new pilots. But for now, it’s an invitation-only affair. He sees potential for league growth in the same way professional video gaming has taken off in the past few years. The grand vision for the DRL is part American Gladiators, part e-sports.