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Drone Racing: Speeding Into Sports Destinations Nationwide

13 Jan, 2016

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

Take the eye in the sky and combine it with a competitive instinct and what do you get? The newest sport around. And sports commissions had better be ready.

FPV (First Person View) drone racing is the next big wave of sports. It uses pilots on the ground who wear video glasses, allowing them to see the race course as they pilot their UAV through it at speeds up to 70 mph. Generally, courses include obstacles such as poles, through which pilots must navigate their drones.

Maybe it’s just another step in our use of the beast. Like horses, they’ve gone from an instrument in warfare to a mode of transportation. Now they’re being harnessed for competition.

There are drone racing leagues for those who want to gather locally and fulfill the need for speed. And for those who want more of a full-contact experience, Popular Science has noted, there’s drone rodeo, in which pilots intentionally crash their drones into one another. (By the way, drones used in this arena are generally those of the Action Sports Airframe, a drone body design that’s able to resist fire, water, and extreme impacts.) However, the PopSci article noted, “the drones’ propellers were not so durable, and many broken blades were strewn about the ground. Fallen soldiers of the drone battles.”

Carnage aside, UAV racing is another segment of the non-traditional sport market that is gaining traction. Just as other solitary sports such as shooting and archery are surging, so too are e- sports. UAV racing is simply a spinoff of the latter. But non-traditional sports, as we’ve learned from bass fishing, have tremendous travel potential, and all bring economic impact to the industry they support, and the cities that host them.

And just as with other sports, organizations have sprung up to govern, or at least help organize them. The U.S. Drone Racing Association (USDRA) notes that it has the goals of promoting the sport of FPV drone racing, promoting guidelines for safety and best behavior, acting as a resource for the public on the terminology and ideas behind drone racing, serving the drone racing community by promoting races, meetups, and other activities, and working with the drone community to develop guidelines for races, meets, and fair competition.

Drones have received their share of bad press recently when it comes to sports events. In addition to the UAV that flew into the stands at the US Open late this summer, alarming spectators and stopping a match in progress, a crash at the World Cup of skiing that barely missed slalom champion Marcel Hirscher led to the banning of all drones at FIS events.

Drone registration, which went into effect in December of 2015, is seen as the first step in regulating a young industry. It’s likely not to be the last.

But there’s no doubt that drones – and the sport of racing them – will be a thriving industry. In fact, as ESPN notes, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is investing $1 million in the Drone Racing League. Why? Because he says there’s money to be made.

Let that sink in for a moment. An NFL owner sees this as a money-making opportunity.

Nick Horbaczewski, the CEO of the league, told ESPN the sport will first be presented on television and will eventually evolve to having spectators in the stands. Horbaczewski said they are hoping the sport will take on a NASCAR-type competitiveness.

"To start, we will have competitors using the same drones, but eventually we see teams building drones and having their own pit crews," Horbaczewski said.

The comparisons with NASCAR may not be unheard-of. RSE Ventures, Stephen Ross' sports and entertainment investment firm, already owns FanVision, which allows NASCAR fans to get a view of the inside of cars during a race. That technology could provide an avenue for the Drone Racing League to give pilots the tools to fly effectively using the first-person cockpit view.

"We backed it because it has all the makings of a modern-day sport: Twitch meets Formula One," said Matt Higgins, co-founder of RSE Ventures.

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