As drones have flown from the fringe to the front line of public awareness, it was only a matter of time until they buzzed
their way into yet another domain: competitive
racing. This exciting, hyperspeed esport grabbed
an estimated 28 million viewers when it was first
broadcast on ESPN in 2016.
The first season of the Drone Racing League
(DRL)’s Allianz World Championship Series introduced mass audiences to first-person view
(FPV) drone racing on ESPN and ESPN2 in 2016.
Season two, which debuted earlier this summer,
culminates with eight pilots vying for the top
spot in London. This new test of motor and flight
skills has found an audience among gamers,
who appreciate its adaptation of gaming mechanics and dynamics in the real world.
The DRL has outpaced rival leagues with
high-profile partnerships with ESPN and Allianz, as well as its $20 million Series B investment from Sky, Lux Capital, Liberty Media, and
its collaboration with Amazon Prime Video. The
league has also done much to develop drone
racing into a more refined spectator sport, going to extreme lengths to standardize the rules,
drones, and courses used for its events.
Although they share some similarities with
consumer drones, professional racing drones—
small quadcopters purpose-built for racing—are
designed to reach speeds of 90–100 mph. They’re
quite different from drones used for aerial pho-tography/videography, which primarily hover
for smooth or steady shots.
FPV drone racing allows the pilots to see
from the perspective of the drone via a live video feed transmitted directly to the pilot’s VR
headset-like goggles. Races are held in most
major cities around the world and require a
racing drone, flight controller, and goggles.
The DRL has released simulator software for
the Mac and PCs that allow potential pilots to
run through simulations of some of the actual
courses to test their skills. Pilots who do well
in simulations may be invited to compete in a
Drone racing requires a unique skill set that
skews slightly toward a younger market since
it combines the quick response and skills required for gaming and tinkering, as well as some
knowledge of mechanical design and engineering. It combines the real and virtual worlds in
the manner of a real-life video game.
The DRL is doing a lot of things right, but before it can become a mass-appeal sport, it must
overcome several hurdles. Because the DRL is
not able to stream races in real time, all productions are currently pre-taped episodes. Onboard
camera footage is added postproduction, since
the live feeds from the drones can be unstable and
are prone to interference. Once this issue is resolved, many new viewers will anxiously be waiting to experience the event as it is happening.
Drone racing is still geared toward hobbyists,
and must jump from geek culture to pop culture. By focusing more on the narrative and human elements, the sport’s proponents can make
it more accessible to a wider audience. The DRL
must also make the drones easier to follow on
screen by adding graphic overlays that track
the drones as they zip around.
Another necessity is making races easily
viewable online because young people don’t
watch “legacy” TV. The DRL has limited its view-ership to traditional channels. Fortunately, FPV
drone racing is seeing the emergence of personalities who will attract fans to the DRL as it
grows and becomes available to more media
outlets and online platforms.
With its fast-paced action, compelling narratives, crisp commentary, slick graphics, quick-cutting camera angles, instant replays, and appealing hosts, it’s easy to see why FPV drone
racing is generating so much buzz.
Mark Alamares ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is a tech entrepreneur and
media strategist for Fortune 500 companies. He is the CEO of
Mobeon, an advanced media studio and consultancy for enterprise,
specializing in immersive content production and distribution.
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The Buzz Is Real:
Drone Racing Is the Next
Frontier for Live Streaming