Is the Drone Racing League For Real?
We go behind-the-scenes at the DRL’s inaugural race in Miami.
As we approach Sun Life Stadium on a warm Florida evening, the glowing egg that is the Miami Dolphin’s home turf just about crackles with the energy of event. The high-wattage lights radiate the December night. Something is happening here, they hum. There are games being played. Come and witness.
Which makes the deserted parking lot all the more startling as we wind past the unmanned gate. The members-only Nine Club, encased like a giant glass cage, is entirely devoid of life. Only after we’re ushered upstairs by a lone elevator valet to a VIP suite do we finally find signs of humanity. But, in the moments before a major sporting event, it's not what you might think.
Under black and white photographs of Dolphins legends from decades past, a dozen production folk run around with earpieces and endless reams of black cable. Besides some chatter and the hustle of bodies, things are relatively quiet. A young woman holds a clipboard and talks into a walkie-talkie. Everyone else is huddled around two monitors, held rapt by the simulated air racing of two men fidgeting with game controllers. These men—and they’re all men, floppily dressed in matching black hoodies and long-sleeve shirts—point to the screens and watch in quiet fascination, punctuated by the occasional thrill of simulated acrobatics.
A young kid, maybe 12 years old, pilots a crudely rendered first-person-view (FPV) vehicle across a digital landscape. Around him the half-dozen other men, much older, watch in awe as this tween beelines his way through a labyrinthine world populated by brick buildings, trees, girders and open windows. It looks like a primitive digital rendering of Sheffield, circa 1887. When the kid sees a smokestack and aims for it, the others glance around. There’s no way he can make that.
Then young’un posits his vehicle directly above the hole, pivots 90-degrees downward, and shoots down the smokestack like a spitball. A collective Daaaamn! explodes from the Watchers. Looks of concern are shared among the young men gathered about wearing black “Pilot” shirts.
Welcome to the spectacle that is the Drone Racing League.
Fitting that this inaugural race is taking place under the looming auspice of a football stadium, as the modern coliseum marks the galactic chasm between this nascent competitive league and the NFL, the very apogee of professional sports. It is not even a chasm, it is a different dimension. But the point isn’t for the stadium to act as a foil, to highlight this impossible space between the haves and the have-nots. Think of it more accurately as a goal for the DRL, an admittedly distant point of achievement.
“What are the elements of any sport that appeal to a younger demographic? It’s speed, great visuals, there’s a tech component—this has all those pieces,” says Matt Higgins, President and CEO of RSE Ventures, the largest single investor in the DRL. “And in terms of revenue streams, it’s not very different from any other sports. It’s about TV, sponsorships, and ultimately it’s about ticket sales. Although that’s the part I think that’s least developed—I don’t have a great sense of how we turn this into a spectator sport.”
Because unlike almost every other sporting event in history, the DRL is not built as a spectator sport—at least not in the traditional sense, where you tear a ticket, buy $12 hot dogs and cheer on the home team with belly paint. In the DRL’s world, the spectacle comes not from witnessing the actual drone race live, but watching the race after the fact (at least this year, that is), from the incomparable comforts of your couch, underpants and tablet or iPhone or laptop or TV.
Still, Higgins and RSE Ventures know a thing or two about brand-building sporting events. A former executive of both the New York Jets and the Miami Dolphins, Higgins has helped launch the highly successful International Champions Cup, a global tournament inviting only the best professional football (soccer) teams. Since 2013 the tourney has crowned champions from apex squads like Real Madrid and Man U.
It doesn’t hurt that the man behind RSE, the one who signed the $1-million check that brought the DRL to life, is none other than real estate magnate Stephen Ross, owner of these here Miami Dolphins. He’s worth $6.7 billion.
Soon after arriving we’re ushered from the VIP suite to the outdoor seating area overlooking the field, out to the majestic, rising architecture of Sun Life Stadium. It’s sublime and a bit creepy to witness such a vast structure, lit up like a roman candle and yet solemnly empty. To our right is the takeoff area where four drones—each colored differently via hundreds of LEDs—rest on black pedestals, immobile and ready. A couple dozen feet away in another staging area, pilots pull VR-like goggles over their heads and prep for the race. Circumnavigating the interior of the stadium is a series of neon green rings, tiny portals that the pilots of the DRL will have to fly through as they lap their way around the prescribed “track.” To our left, a tunnel also lit up green signals where the drones will have to puncture to enter the body of Sun Life Stadium. Inside and below us, a series of mazelike hallways and a long helix walking path await them, ready to challenge the dexterity of their pilots.
In case of out-of-control drones, our viewing area is protected by netting, as is the pilot stage. Dry ice smoke is pumped into the field for dramatic effect; the DRL logo displayed prominently on the giant replay boards crowns the field. The race is about to begin, and the tension is greater than I had anticipated. There are only maybe 50 souls in the entire arena, but everyone is curious—how exactly will this go down?
Suddenly three bells tone, and the four drones take off in a high-pitched, whirring blaze. Well, three do—one immediately smashes onto the concrete below. The Blue drone quickly establishes a 30-yard lead, with Red riding close behind Purple as they zip around Sun Life Stadium, piercing through lime LED windows at each corner.
“Breaking points, apexes, racing lines—all traditionally studied when doing a race day walkaround.”
Although the post-production edit of the races will be the most visually engaging, the live event is nothing to dismiss (pilots, and live witnesses, are fed a standard definition radio feed from the drones, while a second high-def digital camera records footage that will later be used to edit glossy videos). The little lights zoom around the stadium with surprising haste, and the pilot skill is easy to discern. Once they make their way around the field, Blue quickly punches down the tunnel to our left, while Purple circles once to better establish his racing line. In an effort to gain ground, Red speeds past him at full bore—only to smash against the unforgiving, slick concrete of Sun Life’s second tier food court. Once all three drones disappear from the open air into the bowels of the stadium, all eyes turn to the massive high-def screens over the endzones. Here we can follow their battle through the Death Star interior of Sun Life, winding through the concrete hallways and circling up the grey looping helix that takes pedestrians up the different levels.
To our right Blue comes shooting out from the other tunnel—but gets twisted in his path of flight, overtaken by a surging Purple as they begin their second loop around the field. As they hit the final straight, the finishing area bursts with sparklers and the two drones go neck-and-neck flying through the flaming loop, slamming against a black cushioning blanket with a double-tap thud! to end the race.
“Wow,” I say to the woman next to me. “That was way more exciting than I’d imagined.”
“I know, right?” she bursts with earnest enthusiasm. “But you kinda want them to crash, huh?”
Just like NASCAR, mistakes have their barbaric draw. User error allows competitors to catch up, and makes a very robotic experience seem much more, well, human.
“I saw an opportunity and I just went in too fast,” laments Travis McIntyre, the 29-year-old pilot of the Red drone that made sweet gentle love to the Sun Stadium concrete. “You should really line up the tunnel with all those lights they give you; I thought I could swing in faster and I just clipped the wall. If it's enough to break the props, it's enough to ground you.”
“I didn't want to take the risk of trying to push—it wasn't lined up so I did a do-around until I got a better line on it,” counters Ross Kerker, pilot of the Purple drone who McIntyre passed in a blur. “That's when he crashed. He thought he could take that tighter line, but too much risk. If it's not within my window of safety, I'm going to go around and hit it again.”
The two pilots sit before me on a comfortable couch of the VIP area, recounting the tightest moments of their battle. McIntyre, a Santa Rosa, California native who’s been racing for about two years, is known in the scene as a “proximity acro,” specializing in complex tricks that he records and posts on YouTube. He’s credited with inventing a thing called the “yaw whip,” which everyone at Sun Life gives him mad props for. Kerker, on the other hand, considers himself a purist.
“I don't do tricks or anything like that, I'm a true racer. That's all I focus on, whereas Travis is more into doing tricks, tight gaps, flips and rolls, making people sick when they watch it,” he deadpans with Australian wit. Traveling one of the furthest distances from Tweed Heads, New South Wales, Kerker has a history of putting every vehicle he’s owned around the racetrack. The last, a turbo Mazda 3, he “hit another car on the track the first time out.”
“You go and chase a bird,” says Travis, “and it's like being a bird with them.”
In Senna-esque fashion, McIntyre went for the gold in the attempted tunnel overtake… and lost, in a spectacular explosion of shattered plastic. Listening to the two discuss their passion, born in polar ends of the world, it becomes very clear that drone flying is an obsession that transcends. In this backstage area pilots from Mexico, Brazil, Canada, America and beyond mill about. They all share the same sort of glazed lunacy that racecar drivers the globe over display sipping post-track beers.
Do you think there's a future in the sport? What are the odds that, in five years, you’ll be earning a living doing this?
“Well I want to say one hundred percent, but there's also that thought in the back of my mind, ‘Is this really as cool as I think it is?’” Kerker asks with refreshing candor. “Because when you're inside the bubble, it's the only thing that exists in your world and it's really hard to objectively view what you're doing.
“To me, there's nothing else in the world — there's nothing more fun than flying drones: racing them, overtaking people, getting passed, the battle. The race is the biggest thing for me, so any spare minute I have I'm flying, training myself to get as good as I can.”
“Yeah, I think everybody here does,” answers Travis in support. “Pretty much as soon as you put on the goggles, it's all you want to do. I hope I can make money enough that I don't have to do anything else, and all I do is fly.”
Does piloting give you the sensation that you're actually flying?
“No doubt,” says Travis with a grin sneaking out from behind a bushy beard. “You go and chase a bird, and it's like being a bird with them.”
“If you ride motorcycles hard you start to get a sense for how much rubber you have on your rear tire. Throttle control is very important,” explains seasoned pilot Ryan Gury. He also grew up with petrol in his blood, racing a tuned VW GTI MK4 and Ducati Monster 695 before discovering drones. “The same thing with the copter: you start to get a sense of how much thrust you have against how much weight you're throwing around. And it's this weird thing because with drones you only have visual feedback. But after awhile you start to get really good throttle control, just like motorcycling.”
Gury and Kerker aren’t the only DRL pilots with racing backgrounds. It’s not shocking that these dudes would find both cars and drones appealing; what is surprising is how much they borrow from their petrol racing days and adapt and apply to their remote control flying skill set. Breaking points, apexes, racing lines—all traditionally studied when doing a race day walkaround.
“I used to track bikes and learned how to get my knee down and really put effort into it. And you learn about the apex, you learn about how to follow through and throttle procedures and all that stuff. But because of the altitude [of drones] the lines are much greater; you can do so many more things with the added Z dimension,” swears Gury. “The way that you look at and roll up to a course is completely different than you will with a bike or a car. It's a whole new way of racing.
“It may be technically safer, but you actually get a lot more anxious [racing drones] because of the altitude, and because it's 3D.”
As the Director of Product at DRL, Gury is not only a pilot—he happens to be the guy who designed and builds the custom drones. Unlike many drone racing leagues where pilots and teams bring their own customized vehicles to competition, the DRL decided to supply standardized drones to every pilot. This not only evens the playing field to emphasize pilot skill, but it also makes repairs quick and relatively inexpensive. Of course he’s not allowed to race in the DRL events, but he swears he could beat about half the guys assembled in Sun Life. The other half?
“Some of them are just mind-bogglingly fast,” he concedes in awe. “I just don't know how they pick the lines that they do. They’re mathematicians.”
Soon we’re leaving the glowing glass shrine of the Nine Club and exiting into the soggy Miami night. Upstairs the production crew is wrapping up, and the last races have finished. I pass by a raised bronze statue of Dan Marino holding a football aloft, a torch held high over the empty expanse of the parking lot. Under the shadow of such legendary sporting company, you wonder what was witnessed here tonight. Was it simply a small event that will disappear into the pop culture ether like the USFL, Chess Boxing and the National Dodgeball League? Or was today only the first building block in what will one day be the magnificent stadium that is drone racing—be it the DRL, or another league that will surpass it. Is it really possible that, someday, someone will walk under a statue of Travis McIntyre or Ross Kerker? The money’s certainly there. Relevance, too. Mostly, I think of something Matt Higgins said, because it best summarizes the highs, lows and hopes of this most nascent of sports.
“Although today proves it can be done, I don’t think [the DRL] is quite there yet as a live event. But you can at least see the beginnings of how they’d put this on in an arena,” he told me candidly. “I mean if you can get 30,000 kids at Madison Square Garden watching gamers, you can probably take drones flying at 100 mph and make it a spectator sport.”
The first DRL event in Miami will air February 22. The next race takes place at the abandoned Hawthorne Mall in Los Angeles, where Minority Report, Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift and Gone Girl were filmed. Four additional events in 2016, including an abandoned subway tunnel, are yet to be announced.
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