Proponents say sky's the limit for sport of drone racing

Racing drones can travel faster than 70 mph while sending video feeds back to their pilots' FPV goggles. Courtesy Culprit Creative

On the surface, it doesn't seem like a natural fit: A 75-year-old NFL owner/real estate developer teams up with a bunch of 30-something guys seeking some venture capital for a startup called the Drone Racing League?

But then, the reason Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross started his spin-off company RSE Ventures a few years ago was to get ahead of the curve and imagine how sports, entertainment and technology can be fused together in the future. And the DRL -- which gained some immediate legitimacy in the alphabet-soup world of drone sports when RSE Ventures made a $1 million investment in them this week -- fits Ross' checklist perfectly.

Imagine a sport in which remote-controlled, custom-built, four-propeller drones that can travel faster than 70 mph embark on races through gated obstacle courses or even dogfight in mid-air -- all while sending back live feeds that are viewed through virtual-reality FPV (first-person-view) video goggles.

Pilots and spectators wearing their own goggles say part of the pull is you literally feel as if you are flying.

"It's a completely immersive experience," says 34-year-old Drone Racing League founder Nick Horbaczewski.

"Flying these things is like a drug -- when you experience the sensation once, you want to do it again and again," says pilot Ryan Gury, a 32-year-old Pennsylvania native who dovetailed his racing-drone design company, DroneKraft, into the DRL this spring and now works as the DRL's chief of product, handling the company's race course designs as well as some marketing work because, "I've never been this obsessed with anything."

"We backed it because it has all the makings of a modern-day sport: Twitch meets Formula One," said Matt Higgins, president and CEO of RSE Ventures. "The pilots have to have great reflexes and hone their skills over hours and hours of practice. And first-person viewing lends itself to an amazing spectator experience with virtual reality."

One of the DRL' s hopes is to mimic the success of e-sport live video game competitions that can fill arenas like Madison Square Garden.

Down the road, the DRL also hopes to make drone racing a better spectator sport, perhaps by using technology similar to the FanVision experience that RSE Ventures brought to NASCAR racing.

FanVision allows fans in the grandstands to view the race in front of them on personal monitors and even switch their perspective from driver cockpit to driver cockpit.

Much like NASCAR and Formula One drivers, some drone racing pilots have established followings. Similar to video gamers, the pilots use a handheld control set to fly the drones and the top fliers go by handles such as UmmaGawd, MrSteele and Yoda. Many work for hours on their maneuvers and post video to YouTube that can garner big followings -- even sponsors. And many pilots have their own distinctive flying styles. Some defy gravity. Some fly hair-raisingly close to obstacles. Some are smooth as silk and cut a clean line around the course.

Not surprisingly, drone racing has its own lingo. Race meet-ups are sometimes called Drone Rodeos. Gury says pilots call their practice sessions "lifting weights." Other pilots talk in shorthand in online forums about things like WOT (wide open throttle), ARF (almost ready to fly) or OCIJLV (oh crap, I just lost video). Many post videos on YouTube showing off maneuvers or crashes they've engaged in. They share technical tips on how to build and tweak the perfect drone. Like jocks the world over, they also talk smack and critique each other's skill.

Taken all together, Horbaczewski and Gury say, there's enormous potential for the DRL to provide pilots and spectators with a unique, more professionally staged experience than they can get now.

The DRL staged a closed-course trial race this spring in which drones raced through gates set up in an abandoned power plant in Yonkers, New York, and it hopes to have its first public race later this year.

Gury says one of the beauties of such races is the battery-powered drones leave little to no footprint (unless they crash) because "these things don't tread on the ground."

During his fondest flights of fancy, Gury sees no reason why the DRL can't hold events in which piloted racing drones transport viewers live through "some of the most beautiful places in the world. Jungles. Caves. The Sydney Opera House. The Colosseum in Rome.

"Why not? We can make it beautiful and lush."

Gury quit a job as a successful product designer for projects like the iPhone to throw in with the DRL. He says he used to get his speed fixes from cars and flying down roads on his Ducati motorcycle, but he quit. He is downright poetic at times when he describes why the rush he gets once he pulls on his virtual reality goggles and flies drones trumps all that.

"I know it sounds weird," he says with a laugh, "but the experience can be so amazing that sometimes I literally tear up."

"I think anybody with any imagination gets into it. You defy gravity. You feel like a superhero." Drone pilot Ryan Gury

But why?

Think about it, Gury says.

"Since the beginning of time, people have looked at birds and said, 'I wish I could do that.' And the beauty of this is you can fly," Gury explains.

"I think anybody with any imagination gets into it. You defy gravity. You feel like a superhero. You can fly these things around your neighborhood, over buildings, over trees -- even through trees. But you fly in a very different way than in a plane or helicopter, because these things not only go forward; these things can also go right and left, up and down and pull off tricks that things like planes and helicopters can't -- and without the risk while still satisfying someone like me, who has a need for speed but could only push things so far in a motorcycle or a car."

Horbaczewski, Gury and RSE are all betting that drone racing can gain enough traction to grow as a participatory and spectator sport around the world, especially in places like Europe and Australia.

They see the DRL providing media content that can be streamed live online or televised, much like everything from poker to e-game competitions are now.

Already, some YouTube videos of drone racing like this French-produced post have attracted millions of views.

The first-ever United States drone racing championship, which took place in July in Sacramento, California, drew 120 pilots who competed for $25,000 in prize money. Organizer Scot Refsland (who is not affiliated with the DRL) has already announced plans for a September international competition that will offer a $100,000 purse.

There are drone teams and drone clubs in places as far-flung as the United Arab Emirates. A U.S. sporting league that calls itself the Game of Drones engages in drone "cage fights" with rules similar to sumo wrestling. And Gury says among the things the DRL is developing right now is a "Trick Wiki" guide that will cover all the tricks drones can do.

"We've literally read World War II military manuals," Gury says, "and studied dog-fighting maneuvers -- things like the 540 Immelmann. The Split S is another. Pitch flips and roll flips and barrel rolls, all stuff documented from the 1950s or earlier."

And there's more to come.

"There's no reason this can't become a major sport," Horbaczewski insists. "It's got everything. Speed. Excitement. Tech. I really think it can be huge."