Drone Racing League: The new high-octane sport testing the world’s best pilots to their limits

DRL CEO Nicholas Horbaczewski explains what happens when you combine the thrill of pod-racing from Star Wars with the real world adrenaline of Formula 1…

Swooping through the air at 130 kilometres per hour, flying through narrow hallways and veering around tight corners, this isn’t your average quadcopter flight. In the world of professional drone racing, pilots’ skills are pushed to the limits as they manoeuvre their flying machines around some of the toughest obstacle courses on Earth.

One of the biggest tournaments of this kind is the Drone Racing League (DRL), a global competition that sees the world’s top drone pilots compete for prize money and, more importantly, world champion status. This Formula 1 for drones features a series of races held in enormous sports stadiums and derelict buildings around the world. All of the competing pilots fly the same model of drone, the DRL Racer 2, in order to test their skills on a level playing field. In each race, they score points by passing checkpoints and finishing the course within the allotted time, and at the end of the heats the pilot with the most points is crowned the winner.

DRL Racer 2
All DRL pilots have a fleet of DRL Racer 2 drones to use for each race

The 2016 season is already underway, with the first official race held at the Miami Dolphins Stadium, after a test event held in New York at a course nicknamed ‘The Gates of Hell’. Lit by neon lights and featuring multiple floors, this three-dimensional racetrack is a true test of aerobatic skill as the pilots must fly their drones right, left, up and down at great speed. There are plenty of daring manoeuvres and spectacular crashes to keep the audience entertained and inspire the next generation of master pilots.

Built for speed

The custom-made DRL Racer 2 drone is piloted using a remote control, which sends signals to the craft via radio link. DRL’s patented new radio technology ensures reception is never lost, even when the drone flies out of sight through hallways and underground, so the pilot is always in control. HD cameras mounted on the drone transmit a live video feed, also via radio link, to goggles worn by the pilot, enabling them to get a drone’s-eye view of the course as if they were in the cockpit.

The drones themselves are made from lightweight carbon fibre, so they only weigh around 800 grams, and can reach top speeds of 130 kilometres per hour. 100 colour LEDs make each quadcopter easily identifiable and are bright enough for the audience to see the action from hundreds of metres away. After every lap, each pilot’s drone is replaced with a new fully-charged model, ensuring they can go the distance.

The man behind DRL

Nicholas Horbaczewski
Nicholas Horbaczewski

How It Works speaks to Nicholas Horbaczewski, CEO and Founder of The Drone Racing League…

Why did you decide to set up the Drone Racing League?

A little over a year ago, our head of product Ryan Gury – who was then the co-founder of the robotic flying racing company DroneKraft — brought me out to watch a hobbyist drone community race. He gave me a pair of FPV goggles to put on and watch the live feed as the drone soared. It was exhilarating — my heart was racing. The drones, the tech, the three-dimension racing all jumped out to me and I knew it had the potential to be something bigger than it was, where we could bring top pilots from around the world to compete on the most complex and interesting courses ever created in iconic venues.

How do you choose the race locations and design the tracks?

DRL is focused on bringing elite drone pilots from around the world to compete on the most complex and unique racecourses ever created. The courses are designed across a range of venues – from NFL stadiums, abandoned malls and subway tunnels – giving pilots their first big stage to compete and demonstrate their skill. We have a team dedicated to thoroughly researching and vetting all race locations and designing the tracks once we choose a venue.

Drone racing lines are made in 3D spaces, and the use of altitude allows for a whole new type of course features, including vertical hairpins and aggressive dives and climbs through tight and confined spaces. It’s different from historical flat racing lines we’ve come to know (and love) in car or motorcycle racing. Any space you can imagine a race could be a course – from the hallway in an office building to the streets through Time Square – up and down buildings, and around curves at speeds in excess of 80 MPH, creating courses that are not possible in any other sport.

DRL track
DRL tracks have been set up in NFL stadiums, abandoned malls and subway tunnels

What are the main challenges involved in setting up a drone race?

There are many types of drone races — from casual hobbyist events to the large-scale elite DRL races in venues like Sunlife Stadium in Miami. To create a high quality DRL race that an audience can follow and engage with, it takes a tremendous amount of planning, coordination and ingenuity from our event, tech and media teams. The hardest part at DRL is making sure all of these incredibly complex, unique pieces come together in a format the rest of the world can get excited about. We need to make sure the skill of the pilots, visuals of the course and the rules and format work without distracting the fans of the sport.

What sets DRL apart from other drone tournaments?

DRL is the premier international drone racing circuit. Unlike other drone tournaments, DRL is known for its dynamic racecourses in iconic, complex locations, world-class professionally produced video production, custom-built high performance racing drones, and elite, diverse pilots. We have patented technology to race in venues and spaces no other craft can fly, and the entire race is built around sharing the extraordinary pilot skills with a global audience. Traditional FPV races take place in an open field with limited context to who is in first, what’s happening on the course and what the pilots are experiencing. We want to convey each of these pieces to the fans watching around the world.

How have advancements in technology helped the sport?

Technology is core to every element of drone racing – from the design of the drones to the way video is transmitted from the drone to the pilot.

To bring this new sport to life our Head of Product, Ryan Gury, and his team had to rethink the design of a racing drone from scratch. The result is the DRL Racer2, a standard drone all DRL pilots race on, which races at speeds in excess of 80 MPH around insane three dimensional courses. Each drone is hand built by the DRL team, allowing the team to refine the world’s greatest race tech and push the skills of the pilots. At DRL races, pilots are incentivized to fly as aggressively as possible – we provide the drones so they don’t need to worry about crashing and can test the limit of flight. By controlling all these aspects of the technology, DRL races are fundamentally about the pilots’ racing skill.

Why does DRL use FPV flight?

The experience of First Person View (FPV) flying is intense, immersive and surprisingly visceral. When using FPV technology to control the drones, the human brain actually believes it’s in the cockpit of the drone, creating an intense experience demanding the full focus and attention of the pilot.

The benefit is that FPV enables viewers tapped into the live feed to also be able to feel like they’re in the cockpit of the drone with the pilots, giving them the sensation that they’re flying too. The challenge is that FPV takes an incredible amount of muscle memory and practice to be able to pilot with precision. Throttle management and thrust vectoring are skills that develop over time.

Ultimately, DRL courses are too complex (more than 1K long) to be flown by a line of sight at the speeds our pilots race at, which creates the best racing and the most compelling form of the sport.

DRL pilot
DRL pilots get a drone’s eye view of the race via their headsets

What are some of the most difficult manoeuvres and tricks the drone pilots use?

FPV racing allows pilots to push the boundaries of flight. DRL courses are designed specifically to demonstrate and push the incredible skills of these pilots to the limit, and many features will be entirely unique to drone racing and 3D racecourses, such as a vertical hairpin turn. This classic maneuver is set up by stacking two gates, one above the other, and forcing pilots to enter at speeds above 80 MPH, quickly drop in altitude and reverse their direction without compromising time. Some of the other incredible aspects unique to FPV focus on close proximity flight that would not be possible with any other craft – flying up escalators, stadium tunnels, and office hallways all touch on a mix of unbelievable skill and innovative technology.

What happens in the event of a crash?

We always tell our pilots, “if you’re not crashing, you’re not racing hard enough.” Crashes are inevitable and we bring extra drones for each pilot to use after they crash, as well as repair any drones that are salvageable.

Why do you think drone racing is such a good spectator sport?

Our community of race fans, sharing a love of speed and an admiration for the new talent, are drawn to the adrenaline fueled videos coming out of each race, which is why DRL videos have received tens of millions of views. The speed, crashes, and competition are a step up from traditional 2D racing, and we will focus on innovating the viewing experience to connect with fans across backgrounds and geographies.

What advice would you have for aspiring DRL pilots?

Practice. It sounds like the obvious answer, but like any other sport, you need to put in the time to be able to compete at a high level. While the time on the sticks is critical, the other way to get used to the drone is on the DRL simulator. Being an incredible FPV racer requires more than just steady flying and consistent lines, as nerves are the biggest limit for new pilots. The more time you spend flying the better your chances will be on race day.

What does the future hold for the sport?

What developments would you like to see in the future? DRL will continue to bring the world’s elite drone pilots to some of the most complex and visually stunning racecourses ever created outside of a video game. The reality is that drone racing is still an incredibly young sport, and we are trying to find the right way to bring this incredible experience to the masses. For the rest of the year, we will focus on developing the critical tools of a sports league including tech, which never limits the racing, watchable and accessible race content to hook fans beyond the existing FPV community, and the best racing you will see on any FPV circuit.

Discover more amazing technology in the latest issue of How It Works. It’s available from all good retailers, or you can order it online from the ImagineShop. If you have a tablet or smartphone, you can also download the digital version onto your iOS or Android device. To make sure you never miss an issue of How It Works magazine, make sure you subscribe today!

Plus, make sure you also check out our digital-only specials, such as Amazing InventionsExplore Mars and A Guide To The Galaxy, available to download onto your digital device now!

The Pars life guide drones helps save people from drowning 

Fotokite Phi: The pet drone you can keep on a leash 

Drone technology explained in The Drones Book