Drone racing gives tech fans a league of their own

January 17, 2023

In a synchronized movement in a darkened arena in San Jose, California, four pilots pick up their drone controllers. Suddenly, their drones—each lit with thousands of tiny red, yellow, green, or blue LED bulbs—zoom through the curves and gates of the course before 5,000 audience members, who cheer while holding up their phones to catch clips.

But they are not alone. Around the world, millions more fans also are catching the action of the 2022-2023 season kickoff of the Flatiron District-based Drone Racing League on their devices—arguably the natural environment for spectators of the eight-year-old professional league for a sport that can feel like a simulation, reports Crains New York.

“When fans started calling us a real-life video game, we knew we had realized our expectations,” said league founder Nicholas Horbaczewski. “We had so many examples of it from Hollywood and video games for decades”—including iconic examples such as “podracing” in Star Wars, a fantasy generated by computers. “That is a high bar.”

Horbaczewski does not disclose revenue, but in 2021 the league began a $100 million, five-year partnership with Boston-based blockchain-tech company Algorand for title rights to the league’s world championship circuit and has signed on sponsors including Google, T-Mobile, the U.S. Air Force, and New Balance. The company has raised around $100 million in capital—including a $22 million Series D round last summer—and has about 65 employees.

In 2015 Horbaczewski was working in business development at endurance event Tough Mudder when he took note of drone racing, then an amateur-run underground sport growing in popularity. “I thought it was the most amazing thing,” he remembered.

When he launched a league for the sport shortly thereafter, he followed a traditional model for sports leagues, with a season of multiple live events broadcast on television and other live-streaming platforms and sustained by sponsorships and advertising.

The hardest hurdle was the tech itself. Hobbyist and consumer drones were too slow for the league, and they didn’t have the tracking, diagnostic or transmitting abilities needed for an exciting race. Unable to buy drones that met its specifications, DRL built its high-performance drones from the ground up, in its own lab on a floor of the Manhattan office. Each drone is the same, which highlights the skill and techniques of the 12 young, male pilots who come from around the world to compete each season.

“If tech is the center, and it breaks down, it ruins the sport,” Horbaczewski said. “The tech has to be so good, it’s invisible.”

About half of the staff works directly on the drone tech—manufacturing and maintaining a fleet of 600 that can go from zero to 90 miles an hour in less than one second—while maintaining a nearly instantaneous transmission to the pilot, who is on the ground reacting to a remote camera feed in real time. The drones must work both inside and outside. (New York City prohibits most outdoor drone flying, so testing outside the lab occurs elsewhere in the region.) The league has to track and score each drone in real time, to be able to display winners and losers immediately.

In the early days, nearly every race led to a step forward, tech-wise. Now, the ease of doing deep tech integrations is part of what attracts sponsors to the league. The season opener in San Jose on October 11, for example, integrated sponsor Google Cloud Platform by releasing live drone data that allowed Cloud developers to analyze race data and help pilots optimize their techniques. With T-Mobile, DRL built out the tech to enable a drone to fly on the company’s 5G network. Part of the partnership with Algorand includes a way for players to fly drones in the metaverse while earning rewards like digital collectibles. All are ways to relate to a very tech-friendly demographic, according to Horbaczewski.

“Our fans hang on every Elon [Musk] tweet and iPhone release rumor—they don’t care how far Tom Brady can throw a football,” he said. “Now they get all the great things that come with sports fandom in a way that they can relate to.”

Research contact: @crainsny