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The Drone Racing League: Drones Are Going Pro

Updated on May 15, 2018
DRL Racing
DRL Racing

Drone racing is a fun and readily-accessible way to play with drones. Getting a race started is as simple as gathering a few people with drones, finding an open space, and planning a course. Of course, many drone pilots have sought a higher level of challenge and complexity. This desire led to the creation of the Drone Racing League (DRL) in 2015.

The DRL is the premier, professional league for drone racing. The Drone Racing League’s races use first-person-view (FPV) drones and feature impressive, challenging courses. Many of the best drone racing pilots in the world compete in the DRL.

History of the Drone Racing League

The Drone Racing League started when Dan Kanes and partner Justice Laub brought the idea to investor and executive Nicholas Horbaczewski. The latter took over as Chief Executive Officer and began working to take the idea to the next level.

Ryan Gury joined the organized as Director of Product and helped design and build the league’s distinctive drones. The racing drones features in the DRL have colored LED panels on their frames. This allows viewers to easily discern which drone is which, much like the vehicle designs in motorsports.

Under Horbaczewski’s leadership, the Drone Racing League raised two series of investments in 2016 and 2017. These helped the organization to secure a content development deal with MGM Television and broadcast deals with ESPN, Sky Sports, and Germany’s ProSieben.

The first season of the DRL launched in early 2016 and included five professional races. By using empty stadiums and abandoned buildings, the Drone Race League was about to create complex courses while still complying with the FAA’s regulations. This inaugural season received sponsorship from Toy State and Bud Light. Jordan ‘Jet’ Temkin of Fort Collins, Colorado was crowned the first season champion, earning a $100,000 contract and a spot in the 2017 season.

Following the success of the first season, the DRL launched a follow up in 2017. This season was broadcast to over 75 countries through an expanded partnership with the addition of Disney XD, OSN, and others. The second season’s Allianz World Championship was the first drone racing event to feature betting markets through Paddy Power Betfair.

‘Jet’ Temkin faced fellow pilot Gabriel ‘Gab07’ Kocher in the last heat of the 2017 season final. Temkin successfully defended his title, becoming the champion for the second year in a row.

Equipment Used by the DRL

One of the key innovations that make the Drone Racing League an enjoyable television experience is the use of LED illuminated drones. Additionally, like many professional racing organizations, the DRL requires racers to be on an equal footing. However, whereas most motor sports publish strict vehicle requirements, the DRL goes a step further by designing and building all racing drones used in its events in-house. The only difference between the pilots’ drones is the color of the LED panels.

The DRL has over 500 of these drones on hand due to the high number of crashes. With the pilots trying to navigate tight courses at 85 mph, about half of the drones crash each race. Fortunately, because this is drone racing, there are no moral concerns with crashes, unlike motorsports. So, viewers get to fully enjoy seeing drones disintegrate after hitting a wall mid-race. As of the 2017 season, the DRL has used two drone designs.

Racer2

In the first season of the DRL, the pilots used the proprietary Racer2. This drone can reach speeds up to 80 mph. The Racer2 did not remain the same throughout the season as small improvements were made after each race based on racer feedback. One of the major complaints about this model is the exposed electronics leading to damage during crashes. This issue was a key factor in the development of a new model.

Racer2 drones have two or three minutes of battery life when being used at full speed. This may seem short but at the speeds of the DRL, is sufficient to let the pilots complete the courses.

Racer3

For the second season, the Drone Racing League developed the new Racer3. This improved design increased the top speed to 85 mph. Additionally, it can accelerate from a standstill to 80 mph in less than a second.

These speeds are achieved in-part thanks to the high-voltage powertrain developed by the DRL along with Pulse. Its custom five-cell battery provides 1,800 milliamps and 7,000g of static thrust. Along with custom motors and LiPo designed to use a larger propeller that can maintain fast bell acceleration.

The Racer3 drones also feature advanced electronic hardware and software. These allow the drones to be extremely agile and responsive. Without these top-end electronics, DRL pilots would not be able to navigate the tight courses at such high speeds.

Although damage from crashes is inevitable, the Racer3 features a hard shell aimed at making the drones more robust than their predecessors. This includes a diffused polycarbonate shell and a 5k carbon fiber midplate.

RacerX

Although not used in official events, the RacerX is a prototype drone hand build by the league’s product team. It set the Guinness World Record for the Fastest Ground Speed by a Battery-Powered, Remote-Controller Quadcopter. The official, recorded top-speed was 163.5 mph. However, the team reports it reaching up to 179.6 mph.

The RacerX weighs a mere two pounds and uses immense power to fly. These features enabled it to reach record-setting speeds; however, several early prototypes ignited when hitting peak acceleration.

Race Vision 220 FPV Pro

While the Racer series of drones are not available for purchase, DRL fans can purchase a racing drone licensed by the league. The DRL/Nikko Air Race Vision 220 FPV Pro is an advanced FPC racing drone intended to help enthusiasts get the experience of the Drone Racing League.

Racing drones like the Race Vision 220 FPV Pro are significantly harder to pilot than more basic quadcopters. However, once you master the technique, they offer exciting opportunities for fast maneuvers and tight turns.

Other Technology

Beyond the drones used, the DRL has also developed proprietary video capture systems. These include a special, analog video feed designed for low-latency. This feed is used for the real-time video used by the pilots for their FPV goggles. Additionally, each drone is equipped with a high-definition camera for recording footage for post-produced videos.

The drones and video feeds are controlled by an advanced communication infrastructure that allows the drones to fly long distances while maintaining stable signals. Each race venue has a small-scale cell network that helps facilitate this consistent signal.

By emphasizing consistency, the Drone Racing League creates a more compelling viewing experience. The pilots are competing based on skill, not their drone’s capabilities. Additionally, the strong signal strength means that there are very few technical malfunctions to interrupt races.

Drone Racing Courses

Drone Racing League courses are custom designed in each location. They are mostly indoors, featuring tight turns through hallways and other obstacles to maneuver around. With the drones reaching speeds up to 85 mph, these tight quarters make for many white-knuckle moments and plenty of crashes.

Another advantage of the indoor setting is that the courses can be kept mostly dark. The drones feature colored LED panels that help viewers identify them. Additionally, the key features of the courses are lit with LEDs. Not only does this illumination style make the race easier to follow at high speeds, it also creates a futuristic visual style reminiscent of the Tron franchise.

The Drone Racing League team believes that the courses and visual styling help make its races more accessible to the public. Whereas drone racing was once an obscure activity for technology enthusiasts, the DRL aims to be as interesting to casual viewers as it is to its most dedicated fans.

Prior to each event, the racers don’t know what the courses will look like. They are afforded a few practice runs to learn the race. However, there is little time before they start their qualifying runs. This adds to the excitement of the races as the pilots are unable to memorize tricky turns in advance.

Point Sructure

Taking a cue from NASCAR, the Drone Racing League uses a point system to place pilots. Each event involves multiple heats and points are awarded to the pilots based on their performance. For passing two or more checkpoints and completing the course, pilots receive 50 points. They can also earn points by completing the course faster than two minutes, 10 points per second under the cap. The winner of the event is the pilot with the most points.

The second season features four regular-season events, a playoff and a finale. Pilots were invited to the playoffs based on their points during the regular season. The pilots in the finale had the best performances in the playoff event.

DRL Broadcast

Unlike many other sports events, the Drone Racing League races are not broadcast live. Instead, they are post-produced by the organization and its partners for later broadcast. This allows viewers to get a clearer picture of the high-speed races.

To help capture the events, the DRL employs around 50 to 60 cameras mounted around the course. Additionally, the team captures high definition video from the cameras on each drone. So, audiences see a mix of first-person and third-person angles on the races.

Recognition for the Drone Racing League

Drone racing is still in its infancy. Nonetheless, it is quickly gaining traction thanks, in large part, to the success of the Drone Racing League. The DRL has received awards and praise from many sources.

  • Fast Company named the DRL as one of the Most Innovative Companies and the third Most Innovative Sports Company in 2017.

  • Ad Age listed the Drone Racing League in its ‘Startups to Watch.’

  • Cynopsis Sports Media named the DRL the Most Innovative Sports Production of 2017.

Much of this recognition comes from the organization’s success in securing television partnerships. Its relationship with ESPN and other broadcast networks has placed the DRL amongst other top sports leagues. It has set the standard for drone racing visibility with events broadcast in over 75 countries. The DRL is on its way to becoming the NASCAR of drone racing.

Other Leagues

Beyond the Drone Racing League, there are several groups organizing drone races. While the DRL is quickly becoming the most prominent, these leagues each feature their unique takes on drone racing.

  • DR1 Racing

  • TOS FPV Racing Club

  • Drone Sports Association

  • X Class Drone Racing

  • MultiGP

  • European Rotor Sports Association

  • Canadian Federation for Drone Racing

  • World Drone Prix

The Drone Racing League Simulator

Being a professional sport, the Drone Racing League is not easy to join. Only the most talented drone pilots in the world are invited to its events. Nonetheless, anyone can get a taste of the action by trying out the league’s official drone racing simulator.

The DRL developed and published the Drone Racing League Simulator, which was released in June 2017. It features virtual versions of real DRL racing courses. Players can compete in real-time multiplayer or play in a single-player mode. All races are from a first-person perspective, like the views seen by the league’s professional racers.

The Drone Racing League simulator is available for Windows and Mac OSX through Steam. Players must use a game controller to play the game. It is a great way to practice piloting and explore the world of drone racing.

Join the Drone Racing World

The Drone Racing League is quite a spectacle for its viewers. While the pilots in the DRL races are unquestionably elite, there are plenty of ways to get into drone racing even as a beginner. Simulators like the DRL’s official video game offer a low entry point for anyone to experience the fun of top-tier drone racing.

Of course, there’s nothing like the in-person experience of drone racing. Fortunately, all it takes to start a race is a few people, some drones, and an appropriate space. The simplest races pit pilots against each other to fly their drones between two points the fastest. As you start to master the sport, try getting involved with local associations and taking on more challenging courses.

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