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FPV Drone Racing: What’s Going On?

August 4, 2016

DRL, IDRA, DSA, DR1 … keeping the major drone racing league contenders straight has become an increasingly difficult challenge, especially lately. So what’s really going on with drone racing, and who is most likely to rise to the top?

Where’s the DRL?

Let’s start with the league that was first out of the gate: the Drone Racing League, or DRL. DRL’s racing footage has been enthusiastically passed around the internet, with its The Sport of the Future video garnering almost 2 million views. Despite its formerly active YouTube presence, the DRL hasn’t uploaded a video in three months ― its other social media accounts have been similarly dormant.

Eight months into its first annual season, only one of the slated six 2016 DRL races has been released. But on Aug. 2, the DRL reappeared ― with no new flashy video or updated racing footage ― in a government fact sheet.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) hosted its first Workshop on Drones and the Future of Aviation, which covered a wide range of issues and topics related to the future of drones and their effective implementation. And the DRL was mentioned in new commitments to accelerate safely integrating drones: “DRL has developed best-practice guidelines for event organization and safety based on extensive research, which today it is making open-source for use by the general public and racing operators.”

Sounds simple enough, but DRL’s new droneracingsafety.org is surprisingly in-depth, covering all parts of the drone-racing process — the site divides this process into “Planning, Procedure, and Production.” While the site and its contents are for now only informal guidelines, a DRL press release indicates intent to add more content in the future.

“As the popularity of FPV flight grows globally, it has become more and more necessary to establish best-in-class protocols to ensure racing events are held in a safe manner,” said DRL Founder and CEO Nicholas Horbaczewski in a press release. “We believe it’s important to use DRL’s leadership in the FPV industry to provide extensive information on racing safety.”

Now that the DRL seems to have completed this top-secret project, hopefully the racing league will be able to shift back to FPV-racing and release the long-awaited footage of its L.A.pocalypse races. If the DRL can get back into the swing of regularly producing sleek, visually appealing drone-racing footage, they stand to become a force to be reckoned with. But the longer they put off releasing new content, the further they fade into obscurity.

race1

FPV drone racing continues to struggle in its attempts to achieve mainstream popularity — but these leagues are fighting to change that. (Amimon)

IDRA and DSA – who’s who?

DSA might be an unfamiliar acronym even for those who recognize IDRA and DRL — that’s because the Drone Sports Association (DSA) was just established in July of this year.

The International Drone Racing Association (IDRA) may ring a few more bells, likely due to the fact that IDRA signed a major contract with sports television network ESPN to televise IDRA’s drone racing events — specifically, the 2016 U.S. National Drone Racing Championships and the 2016 World Drone Racing Championships.

IDRA is also well known in the drone racing circuit for its partnership in the 2016 World Drone Prix in Dubai, the largest drone race to date, with a purse of 1 million U.S. dollars to be split among the winners. Despite some technical difficulties at the World Drone Prix, IDRA established itself as a frontrunner in the race to drone-league dominance.

While a visit to IDRA’s website proudly proclaims that the league will “See you at the next race,” actual event dates are seemingly absent — the site’s calendar page displays an un-updated calendar template of “test events.”

Why isn’t IDRA touting the upcoming drone nationals? Well, that would be because IDRA is no longer organizing the nationals. DSA is.

Screen Shot 2016-08-03 at 1.53.11 PM

The DSA is sanctioning the National Drone Racing Championships this weekend, with the backing of both ESPN and GoPro. (dronenationals.com)

An un-merger

This may seem confusing at first — if IDRA signed the ESPN deal, how did DSA end up organizing the nationals?

In April of this year, IDRA merged with a league called RotorSports, which put on the 2015 National Drone Racing Championships (don’t worry, this isn’t yet another league — but I’ll get to that in a second). Under the merger, IDRA maintained all branding, but broadcasts and video were to be handled by RotorSports.

At the time, the merge was hailed as a move to both simplify and unify the drone racing space, creating an FPV-racing powerhouse that would quickly become the quintessential drone-racing league.

About three months later, the then-unknown “DSA” issued a statement announcing that the merger was no more, and that the newly independent RotorSports would be reinventing itself as the DSA (I told you I’d get to it).

The DSA has already secured sponsorship from action camera company GoPro, which is slated to release its Karma drone later this year.

Scot Refsland, former chairman of the RotorSports/IDRA league and current chairman of the DSA, said in the statement, “We at RotorSports and IDRA initiated a merger several months ago, [but] we have mutually decided not to close the deal and to go in separate directions.”

This makes for a somewhat murky outlook for IDRA. The association’s Facebook page indicates a partnership with the Korean Drone Racing Association for the upcoming World Drone Masters, but it remains unclear what the future may hold for IDRA.

For both the DSA and the sport of FPV racing writ large, a lot is riding on this weekend’s broadcasts of the National Drone Racing Championships — the first live broadcast of drone racing on ESPN3.

If the association can pull off such a feat, it will likely be cemented as the league to beat in the space. It will also prove to the naysayers that drone racing can be broadcast live to spectators in an entertaining and engaging manner, which has been an ongoing concern both in and out of the drone racing community.

Footage from the DR1 finals was grainy and hard-to-follow, only providing views from each racer's FPV headset.

Footage from the DR1 finals was grainy and hard-to-follow, only providing views from each racer’s FPV headset.

Another challenger appears

Of course, all of these racing leagues and associations are relatively new — drone racing is not exactly an ancient sport. But DR1 came onto the scene seemingly out of nowhere, and with major sponsors and partners to boot. With broadcasts on live-streaming network Twitch, the Discovery Channel, and the Science Channel, as well as sponsorship from Mountain Dew, DR1 came out swinging.

The DR1 site states that the racing league is affiliated with the popular YouTube drone show Rotor Riot, which gives DR1 yet another boost by bringing in recognizable FPV racers including Steele “Mr Steele” Davis, Tommy “UmmaGawd” Tibajia, and Chad “FinalGlideAUS” Nowak.

It’s yet to be seen how the DR1 Invitational will be packaged and aired on television, but the YouTube video of the final race consists of grainy FPV footage — a lack of high-definition FPV or third-person view tends to disorient the viewer. If DR1 can put together a more digestible product for the average spectator sitting at home, it could establish itself as a significant player in the space.

But for now, playing primarily off of name recognition and an informal, behind-the-scenes production style, DR1 will likely remain popular only among those already inside the FPV racing culture. Which, for DR1, could be enough.

Waiting game

Right now, a lot is up in the air. Each league and association is battling to find a space, establish a name, and create an audience — and none of these are easy feats.

Matthew Volk, ESPN director, programming and acquisitions, said in a press release for the DSA agreement, “Drone racing is an opportunity to reach and connect with a growing and passionate audience.”

But as time goes on, audiences will choose their alliances and support their preferred group accordingly by tuning in to digital streams or turning up at events. All the techno music, flashy production, and cunning course design in the world might not matter because, ultimately, it all comes down to the viewers.

Featured image: David Stock

Comment On This Article
  • Emily

    It’s funny how Rotorsports after the Founder and CEO of IDRA decided not to complete the merger, rotorsports changed their name too Drone Racing Association. They can’t even be creative in renaming their company. This is how Scott Refsland likes to ride on everyone else’s visions and hard work.

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