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The whole new world of drone racing

Monitoring Desk

“The first time I put on those goggles and got to experience flight, I just fell in love,” explains Jordan Temkin. “Then I just went down the rabbit hole.”

Temkin, also popularly known as Jet, is not an aircraft pilot, nor a skydiver. He is, however, a two-time world champion in the rapidly growing world of first-person view (FPV) drone racing.

Drone racer, Jordan Temkin or Jet
Two-time world drone-racing champion Jordan Temkin

Originally a niche sport that began with semi-organised events in locations ranging from Australia to Germany between 2011 and 2013, FPV drone racing, in which the pilots wear head-mounted displays that show a live stream camera feed from the drone, has become a sizeable industry.

According to data from Polaris Market Research, the global drone racing market size is expected to grow from $412m (£300m) in 2019 to $2.1bn (£1.5bn) by 2026.

Around the world several organisations and governing bodies have been established to organise FPV drone racing events but the most high-profile is the Drone Racing League (DRL).

Using custom-built drones designed to travel at speeds of up to 90mph (145km/h), DRL holds races at venues around the world, including the Allianz Riviera stadium in Nice, France, Alexandra Palace in London, and Gardens by the Bay in Singapore.

Drone racers
Head-mounted displays that show a live stream camera feed from the drone

DRL founder Nicholas Horbaczewski, formerly the chief revenue officer of the Tough Mudder endurance event series, explains that as recently as 2015, drone racing was still “underground”, with a small but dedicated group of enthusiasts exchanging information on message boards. They built drones with parts ordered from the web and met in fields and car parks to race.

“I got a chance to see it live in 2015, and I just thought it was amazing. It evoked thoughts of Star Wars and sci-fi movies,” he recalls.

“It really got me interested in how the sport could go mainstream.”

At the time, however, drone racing was held back by technical limitations. According to Horbaczewski, the homemade technology being used by drone racing’s early pioneers wasn’t sufficient to build a sport that could be broadcast in front of a live audience or on TV.

“It simply wasn’t robust or reliable enough. While the concept was really appealing, it only worked as an amateur sport,” he says.

“So we stepped back and became a technology company. We raised venture capital, and we built a team of engineers and we built industrialised, professional equipment to enable a grander scale of drone racing.”

Fast forward to 2020, and DRL is broadcast on the likes of NBC, Twitter and Sky Sports and boasts high-profile sponsors.

Temkin believes the mass proliferation of recreational drones, including purpose-built recreational FPV drones released this year, means the sport is on the cusp of a new era of growth, with new participants and viewers on the horizon.

Drone racers
DRL holds races at venues around the world

“It’s a language that people who don’t speak the same language can communicate with. All these people around the world have the same love for the flight of racing drones. It’s an experience we all share,” he says.

“And now there’s a group of teenagers coming up who have been flying since they were children. That’s another level of skill and understanding.”

In the case of DRL, the league received an unexpected boost during the 2020 season when, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, competitions were held virtually using a drone racing simulator available on Xbox and software distribution platform Steam. The sport already had a digital element, with pilots trying out to be a part of the league through a simulator.

“As a sport, drone racing has a blurry line between the digital and the real. It has an element of e-sports. You have pilots sitting there holding controllers, looking at screens. In some cases they’re controlling real-life drones, and in some places creating virtual drones,” Temkin says.

“We can move seamlessly between the two, and our fans love that.”

In January, DRL partnered with American sports betting operator DraftKings to become the first drone racing organisation that will let people bet on drone races, a potentially lucrative development that some analysts believe portends the future of the sport.

According to Chris Altruda, a sports betting industry analyst with Pennbets.com, over the coming years the success of drone racing as a betting sport will most likely be determined by how successful it is in attracting Generation Z, those who are beginning to enter the coveted advertising demographic of the over-25s.

At the moment, however, a number of factors are holding back the sport. Jean-Francois Denis, the executive director of the Coventry-based International Universities Drone Racing Organisation, says that despite growing popularity, audience size still faces issues when compared to other sports – particularly motorsports.

DRL drone
The drones are capable of speeds of up to 90mph

“The creation of drone racing as a pilot-centric sport has resulted in an entertainment format that’s undeniably exciting for the participant, and somewhat confusing for first-glance potential spectators,” he says.

“For this sport to have a competing chance against its motorsport peers, it needs to think beyond its current state.”

Timothy Crofts, the president of the Australian FPV Association, says regulation could also hold back the sport.

“I think what the sport needs most right now is support from government bodies to make sure it can continue to exist as a sport in the years to come,” Crofts says. “It’s currently at risk around the world as laws are changing to make it more restrictive and difficult to participate in.”

In the longer term, industry insiders believe that the popularity of drones among even younger people will translate to more interest in racing.

Jenny Mirkovic, the chief operating officer of AirVuz, a Minneapolis-based firm that specialises in drone content creation and sponsors several FPV racers, says that the sport is becoming “incredibly accessible”, even for teenagers still at school.

“My daughter is in high school, and her school has a drone racing team,” she says. “It’s pretty easy to get into it, and the drones themselves aren’t very expensive. There’s a low barrier to entry.”

The spread of FPV drone racing, she adds, is bolstered by the now widespread availability of footage posted online. A viral video of an FPV drone flying through a bowling alley that was released earlier in March, for example, quickly amassed nearly 2 million views.

“Kids are excited by the video content, and then by the sport,” Mirkovic says. “It’s an exciting time and a great place for all these things to meet up.”

Jordan Temkin, for his part, believes the future of the sport is bright.

“What we do in the next five years will be amazing. I really do think that this industry is just getting bigger and bigger.”

Courtesy: BBC