They have been responsible for innumerable deaths in the Middle East during the last decade and, if Amazon has its way, will deliver millions of toasters, gift sets and novels in the future. But recently drones have begun to fulfil a less utilitarian kind of role: competition in the nascent world of futuristic motorsports. A confluence of technological advances has made drone racing possible. A minuscule camera, mounted on the drone’s nose, allows the pilot, as competitors are luxuriously titled, to control the vehicle through virtual reality-style goggles, as if perched in its tiny cockpit.
With powerful lithium batteries, the size of which dictates the speed class of the drone, these machines, which are typically the size of a box of tissues, can reach speeds in excess of 120mph. Studded with coloured LEDs, they fly like hyper-evolved, fluorescent mosquitoes and, thanks to their size and manoeuvrability, can make use of those areas of a sports stadium that are usually out of bounds: streaking over the pitch, for example, before grazing through a window, along a corridor and out again into the night sky. Impromptu courses can be set up anywhere. In September, during an event timed to coincide with the Paris Drone festival, pilots raced along the Champs-Élysées, watched by 150,000 spectators.
Zealous entrepreneurs closely follow on the tail of any emerging sport. Each invariably hopes to corner the market by establishing the definitive league. “When I first started the Drone Racing League, once a week I had someone telling me they were launching their own league,” Nicholas Horbaczewski, co-founder of the DRL, told me. Horbaczewski watched his first drone race in a car park outside a Home Depot in New York City. “I thought: how do we elevate this to a level where we can put it on TV?” Since its founding in 2015, the DRL has attracted serious investment – $12 million to date, with high-profile investors ranging from New York’s Lux Capital to media partners such as MGM, ESPN and Sky Sports.
Last week, Horbaczewski announced that the German insurer Allianz would sponsor the DRL’s 2017 championship, the final event of which will be staged at London’s Alexandra Palace in the summer. It’s a legitimising deal. Allianz is a major investor in Formula 1 racing, football (the company has bought the naming rights to six stadia around the world, some of which will be used in the forthcoming DRL championship) and a sponsor of tennis, golf and swimming tournaments. “What Red Bull has done with extreme sports is what we want to do with digital sports,” explained Allianz’s Jean-Marc Pailhol. “We want to make drone racing one of the main sports in the world.”
There are major obstacles standing in the way. Filming high-speed drones, zipping through courses as tall as they are wide, is an enormous broadcasting challenge (one tough enough to prevent the DRL championship from being broadcast live on Sky this year). Then there are significant technical concerns. The ultimate aim is to allow spectators to pull on their own headset in order to watch the action from the perspective of their favourite drone. Finally, there’s the need for sufficient money in the ecosystem to support young pilots so that they can afford the time off work to compete. “Executing successfully is extraordinarily difficult,” said Horbaczewski. “You have to be a tech firm, a media company and a sports league all rolled into one.”
Then there’s the issue of competition. Horbaczewski claims that with the emergence of the DRL, drone racing is a “professional sport now”. Rival leagues, he said, have faded away and, in the DRL, there is “finally a well-organised sports league”. These claims are vigorously disputed by Richard de Aragüés, director of the 2011 documentary film TT3D: Closer to the Edge and founder of the British drone racing team Tornado XBlades Racing. “This is far from a one-horse race and many of us close to the sport feel the DRL press claims are somewhat misleading,” he told me.