When drones go pro



Reinventing drone racing

The entire drone community watched the Drone Grand Prix in Dubai with interest. Funded and run by a wealthy family, the event hosted a high-profile mix of private money and sponsored pilots. The course itself took the form of a raised track resembling a giant snake skeleton.

The organizers stumbled on some of their promises the first day. Drone events require the coordination of dozens of radio signals so pilots and spectators can control or watch the right drone. There are flashy light shows and live streams to think about. By the end, the Grand Prix had all these things.

Growing drone racing requires a mix of pleasing pilots, spectators and sponsors.

— Nick Horbaczewski, CEO of Drone Racing League

“That was the first time that everybody saw what live racing looks like with money behind it,” Refsland said. “That really showed the world drone racing from a professional level is pretty substantial.” He said the race made his phone ring with calls from investors.

Growing drone racing requires a mix of pleasing pilots, spectators and sponsors, according to Nick Horbaczewski, who is the CEO of the Drone Racing League. Spectators mean more sponsors and investors. Sponsors and investors mean more money, which means more pilots. More pilots mean more companies will invest in drone technology, which means more equipment options and a potential drop in costs.

But as drone racing grows more professional, some pilots are raising alarm bells. RC pilots flew for decades without serious interest from the public or government. Now that more people — including reckless beginners — are picking up drones, the FAA is swooping in with new rules that threaten an FPV pilot’s way of life.

There’s also anxiety as money pours in from people without experience with drones. Pandering to spectators and sponsors means compromising pilots’ ideas of the perfect race.

“The whole identity of the hobby is at stake,” says Wendland, who spoke out strongly against the existence of professional drone racing leagues. “If we allow enough investors to just take it and repackage it, then it’s gone. We’ll have lost our culture.”

It’s a painful evolution the world has seen several times over the last few decades. When snowboarding debuted, it delighted its small group of experimentalists. Then it grew and many ski resorts banned it. Eventually, it became an accepted part of snow-sport culture. But the cycle dictates that as sponsors cash in, inventors feel forgotten.

If we allow enough investors to just take it and repackage it, then it’s gone. We’ll have lost our culture.

— Sean Wendland, pilot

Horbaczewski argued that drone racing’s global momentum ensured it would have burst into the public eye at some point, even without major investors. Most people I interviewed spoke in favor of having a variety of drone racing events, from the local to the international level.

Loo is already dreaming of the day he can quit his job and start racing drones full time — something that becomes more possible as the sport continues to grow. Others are talking about a skate park model, which would provide safe spaces for hobbyists to fly and find other enthusiasts.



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