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Can the Drone Racing League Take Flight?

As the DRL’s third season begins, ESPN exposure, substantial funding, and increased competitiveness point toward a more mainstream future, but the sport is still wrestling with changing technology, drone anxiety, and homogenous rosters

Jordan Temkin is not afraid of heights. For him, the highlight of rock climbing is looking down when he’s halfway up a mountain—precisely the part of the experience that would give most people pause. He also enjoys jumping off cliffs on skis and riding too fast through the forest on mountain bikes. From time to time, he’s broken bones for his hobbies, and once, he broke his face—to be precise, his cheekbone, which he fractured after a failed backflip on skis. “That wasn’t a fun one,” he says.

The 27-year-old Temkin, who lives in his native Seattle, still sometimes puts himself in harm’s way in the pursuit of excitement. But in the past few years, he’s found a full-time occupation—or as he calls it, an obsession—that allows him to experience greater heights and faster travel than he has before without breaking any bones or, for that matter, moving much at all. He races drones, wearing goggles that give him a first-person view (FPV) of the feed from cameras mounted on the speedy devices. “There’s very few things that I’ve experienced that are almost a full out-of-body experience,” he says. “Whenever I fly, I’m transplanted into the drone. I’m flying my whole body, my mind is transplanted into this other little machine. I think that’s the coolest thing ever.” Better yet, he adds, “I’m only risking a few hundred dollars instead of my life.”

Temkin, who uses “Jet” as his esports-style moniker in racing circles, may be risking money when he races drones that he’s built himself in amateur events, but he’s also making more than enough money to cover the occasional crash—and, for the record, he’s totaled only one drone in the almost five years he’s been flying, which he remembers because, he says, “it felt like I had lost a part of me.” Temkin is the two-time champion—and, thus far, the only champion—of the Drone Racing League (DRL), which was founded in 2015 and launched its first season in 2016. His status as the reigning speed demon of drone racing entitles him to a one-year, $100,000 contract with DRL—a better deal than working three non-drone-racing jobs at a time, as he used to do, especially considering the regular rushes of adrenaline that seem to motivate him as much as the money (and the lack of medical bills). But Temkin is the top earner in a sport that still doesn’t make successful racers rich or support many full-time competitors.

Thursday marked the start of the Drone Racing League’s third season, which will feature 18 racers competing in seven events in locations including the BMW Welt exhibition center and the University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2. By some measures, the league is already a success: DRL airs in more than 75 countries, including in 10 episodes on ESPN in North and South America. Its first two seasons, a league spokesperson says, were watched by a total of more than 55 million viewers worldwide, which gives it a visibility advantage over competitors like MultiGP and DR1 that don’t have the ESPN imprimatur. In other respects, though, the league is still going through growing pains as it figures out what drone racing, drone racers, and drones themselves will look like as the sport tries to transition out of its fledgling phase. And with each step the circuit takes toward the mainstream, Temkin has to work harder to fight off new challengers who are seeking to unseat him. “Eventually, we hope that drone racing becomes such a large sport that people are walking around in the streets with our jerseys on,” he says. But by the time that happens, if it ever does, there’s no telling which names will be on the back of the jerseys.

The Drone Racing League was born behind a Home Depot on Long Island in 2015, which is where and when founder and CEO Nicholas Horbaczewski saw his first drone race, just months after the first FPV drone race in the country in October 2014. Horbaczewski, who’s now 37, majored in history and literature at Harvard, where he also obtained his MBA. Studying stories in school, he says, gave him an appreciation for presentation and narrative, while his postgraduation jobs—for a film production company he cofounded and in corporate development for a company that sold security equipment to the government—familiarized him with media, entertainment, and technology. Later, he worked on the business side for Tough Mudder, which introduced him to racing and sports. All of that served him well when he left Tough Mudder in 2015 with the goal of starting a new business in what entrepreneurs refer to as the “sports space.” He quickly came across a manufacturing company called DroneKraft, which was started by Ryan Gury, who would soon help Horbaczewski get the DRL off the ground and who still serves as the league’s director of product. Gury took him to the field on Long Island where he and other enthusiasts met to race drones on weekends, and Horbaczewski stared, spellbound, at the buzzing specks in the sky. “I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen,” says Horbaczewski, in a sentence that probably hasn’t been uttered about something that happened behind a Home Depot since the discovery of a dog nursing a kitten. (The other Google results for “behind a Home Depot” are not nearly as nice.)

Gury, a longtime hardware and software worker and an inveterate tinkerer with bikes and cars, was then less than two years removed from his own drone-racing epiphany, which in his case came via drone’s-eye-view YouTube videos. Virtually everyone involved in drone racing has a recent conversion in common: Five years ago, almost no one was doing this. When the now-36-year-old Gury got into the sport, he says, “the core concepts of what makes a racing drone were unknown.” As a result, he’s had a lot of leeway in designing the specs, which has been both thrilling for him as an engineer and challenging for the DRL, which had to build dependable drones before it could build an audience.

Horbaczewski recalls that the reactions he encountered in the first series of meetings he held with investors “ranged from casual interest to being sort of politely laughed at out of the room.” The best possible advertisement for drone racing, he realized, was the same spectacle that had hooked him and Gury: an actual drone-flight display. In the fall of 2015, the nascent DRL staged a proof-of-concept trial race at an abandoned Yonkers power plant known to everyone except the Yonkers City Council as the “Gates of Hell.” “It was a complete failure,” Horbaczewski says. “Everything went wrong. The technology didn’t work, the media was hard to film, and we learned that while there was amateur drone racing going on in fields and parking lots around the country every weekend, the gap between that and any kind of professional drone racing—drone racing that a fan would watch—was so massive.”

Although the potential investors in attendance, seduced by drone racing’s blend of arresting visuals, tech/VR overlap, and exciting competition, were largely undeterred by the flop—the league raised $12 million in funding in 2016 and another $20 million from additional sources, including the WWE, last year—the DRL didn’t air a race on TV until more than a year later, when they were confident that they’d worked out most of the kinks. In the interim, Gury and his in-house tech team worked on building more durable, reliable, versatile, and visible drones, pioneering an RF-interference-resistant radio control system that didn’t require the drones to be within the racers’ line of sight and outfitting them with hundreds of LEDs that make them easier to track from afar. “The balance of making [drones] work for the racers as well as broadcasts has been a big challenge,” Gury says, specifically citing the need to “get something that large to feel really small and high-performance.” To do that, his team has to coax enough juice out of each dinner-plate-sized drone’s power system to make its 6-inch propeller rotate rapidly and efficiently enough for it to execute its acrobatics. That takes a lot of testing. “We do maximize the powertrain and make sure that it’s not gonna blow,” Gury says. “And we do that hundreds of times a day, so the rest of the office is in love with that.”

Gury’s team of electrical mechanics operates out of a not-so-soundproofed sanctum in the DRL’s office in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, where non-tech-team members try to ignore the loud whirring and whining that emanates from the workshop and washes over the desks and conference rooms. Even if they wanted to complain, they’d be outnumbered; the engineering and technology division is the DRL’s largest. Gury’s team, which squeezes seven members into its Manhattan enclave, builds hundreds of drones in-house in preparation for each event, and designed the RacerX, which set a still-unbroken drone-speed record in July 2017 by traveling at a top pace of almost 180 mph. It also continues to iterate on the stock, quadcopter drone models used in DRL races; the Racer3S, which will be used in Season 3, will be slightly faster than last season’s Racer3, which maxed out at around 85 mph and could reach its top speed from a standstill in less than a second.

Horbaczewski says that the DRL is always looking to “push the very limits of speed and performance,” but Temkin believes that faster may not be better. “My personal racing drones are significantly faster than the DRL drones, and from a spectator standpoint, you can’t see what the heck is going on,” he says. To that end, the updated drone model will also feature a tracking system that will allow audiences to follow each racer’s position on a 3D display during broadcasts. The Racer4 is already in development for Season 4, and its successors will keep coming as state-of-the-art parts improve along with the engineers’ understanding of how best to fit them together. “There’s dozens of properties that all work together in harmony to get certain properties and performance pieces out of it,” Gury says. “And we’re just scratching the surface.”

“Just scratching the surface” is a common refrain among DRL executives and racers, the latter of whom compete in several DRL events per season, each of which consists of three rounds that are each composed of multiple heats that last for roughly one minute, depending on pilot performance, and later aired on a tape-delayed broadcast that reveals the embargoed results. (Because the drones are small, fast, and hard to follow in person, produced programs with judiciously chosen camera angles are the ideal spectator experience.) Although that’s a short span of time (imposed partly by battery-life limitations and partly by the limits of spectator attention spans), it doesn’t feel short to the participants, who zoom through brightly lit gates in mile-long physical courses and try to avoid Aggro Crag–esque environmental obstacles that make the typical layout as daunting as a cross between the Boonta Eve Classic and a Death Star trench run. “I don’t think I’ve ever done anything other than drone racing that takes all of your focus to the point that afterward, you just need to take your goggles off and sit down and be like, ‘OK. Take a breath. Let’s see where I am,’” Temkin says.

Though almost all accomplished racers design or construct drones of their own, whether for fun or to race in events that welcome homebrew entries, BattleBots-style—“it can teach you soldering and electronics and radio frequency and aerodynamics,” Temkin says—DRL mandates that its racers use Gury’s standard drone model to ensure that DRL remains a drone-racing competition and not a drone-building competition. “We don’t want it to come down to who has the better drone,” Gury says. “We want to find the best raw talent.”

As part of that talent search, the DRL released a drone-racing simulator on gaming platform Steam in June 2017. The simulator—which, like the DRL’s drones, is periodically updated—is designed to mimic the flying-and-racing experience as closely as possible. Gury and DRL director of operations Ashley Ellefson, another Tough Mudder alum who leads the design of the DRL’s mercifully mud-free courses, use the sim internally to test drone prototypes and mock up courses, respectively, and the company runs an annual, Last Starfighter–style tryout that awards a $75,000 contract for real-life racing to the best racer in the sim, which this year went to Port Angeles, Washington’s Brodie “Robogenesis” Springer. “It’s pretty one-to-one,” Gury says. “If you’re good in the simulator, you’ll be a good pilot.” Temkin acknowledges that the sim is useful for developing the muscle memory associated with certain maneuvers, but he prefers the real thing and says—without any apparent rancor or condescension—that he doesn’t consider himself a “simulator pilot.” He also cautions that as accurately as the simulator may model the physics of flight, it can’t quite capture the pressure of a real race or test a racer’s “right stuff.” “It’s this stress level that is very, very, very hard to mimic,” he says. “I think that’s the training that most of us as drone pilots need at the moment, is just being able to hold your shit together.”

Whether in the sim or in reality, controlling drones is deceptively difficult: The sim is compatible with video-game-console controllers, but flight is a much more delicate process than it is in most games, tasking racers with controlling their drone’s throttle, pitch, roll, and yaw. A gamer who starts out on the simulator’s more advanced settings without any prior drone-racing experience will quickly crash. Although Temkin acknowledges that quick reflexes are crucial to racing success, he notes that it’s too soon to say what the aging curve for drone racers will look like. Although most racers skew young, the DRL’s longest-tenured pilot, Christian “FPV Provo” Petersen, is 40. As with any form of racing, there’s a technique to the proper approach that centers on knowing the “race line,” or the proper path through the course. In other forms of racing, Temkin says, “everything’s two-dimensional, it’s left or right, where[as] we have left or right and up and down for our race lines, especially when the tracks start to go inverted and go into the ceiling and do these crazy things that we do in DRL. The race line starts to get really difficult to decipher and to understand.” Before they race at a DRL event, the competitors get a guided tour of the course, followed by an opportunity to walk it on foot and then a dozen or so practice runs with their drones.

According to Temkin, competitors in the early days of drone racing (whose amateur roots are recent) resisted dedicated practice; if a racer was in tune with their drone, the thinking went, they wouldn’t need to put many extra hours in away from the course. That thinking has changed as “veteran” pilots have honed their skills and exposure for the sport via ESPN and other outlets has attracted new racing recruits, leading to an expansion of the pilot pool that has produced a corresponding increase in competition and time required to keep up. Temkin says he’s significantly better than he was a year or two ago, capable of flying faster and with greater precision and confidence; when he flies, he now feels as though he’s racing within his abilities rather than constantly straining them. But the rest of the returning racers have seen significant improvements of their own, and they’ve already grown used to “seeing younger-generation pilots coming in who’ve been flying half the amount [and] who are already just as fast if not faster than some of us.” Sometimes he’s taken aback by the skills on display in a YouTube video by a pilot he’s never heard of; sometimes he attends an amateur race and finds that “there’s some kid who just drove in with his mom from Idaho or something and just blows everyone away.”

As new fliers flood the scene, many of them familiar with his history and eager to take him down, Temkin spends the majority of his time doing drone-related activities, both because he still loves the breakneck (but not neck-breaking) thrill of being “transformed into a different being” and because he has to if he wants to preserve his slim edge. “I would call it an obsession, just because it’s not even [solely] when I’m practicing that I count as time committed to drone racing,” he says. “I also edit video. Most all of my internet surfing is drone-related. I’m researching, I’m watching other pilots. I’m fully invested in such a way that I think all hours of the day, for me, other than eating and sleeping, are spent related to drone racing.” If you consider that eating and sleeping are necessary steps if he wants to keep warging from his ground-bound body into a less restrictive vessel, then he can count those hours also.

When Gury, in the course of our conversation, says, “We want the guys to fly as fast as they can,” he probably doesn’t intend the pronoun to be gender-specific. In practice, though, it might as well be, because Season 3’s 18-racer roster is composed entirely of men, as was Season 2’s. (Season 1 featured one female racer, Angela Jacques.) Like esports, an industry to which it’s often compared, drone racing (both in the DRL and beyond) suffers from a pronounced male skew, which is all the more glaring because in contrast to some sports, physiological differences shouldn’t de-level the playing field.

Zoe Stumbaugh, a decorated drone racer and flier, has been one of the most outspoken critics of the scarcity of female competitors at the upper echelons of the sport. Stumbaugh bought her first drone in 2014, and flying restored her sense of purpose. At the time, she was nearly bedridden with severe medical complications, barely able to sit upright or walk. “I was really depressed,” she says. “I had to drop out of college and literally dropped out of life.” She tried gaming, but she needed something that would get her out of bed, at least for a few minutes, and drone-flying fit the bill. She sold her Oculus Rift and bought goggles for first-person drone flight, trading one alternate reality for another that she found even more immersive.

Despite no past soldering experience, she was soon building her own drone—a prerequisite for aspiring pilots in the days before prefab fliers—which after about two months of construction she got working while recovering from a surgery in the hospital. “I scared a nurse when I powered it up for the first time,” Stumbaugh says. “She said it sounded like a bag of drills were going off in my room.” Stumbaugh quickly became addicted, even though she could fly the drone for only a few minutes at a time before it ran out of power. “I had to haul my butt on a cane, prop myself up against a tree, and had to have a helper put the drone down because I couldn’t bend over to do it,” she says, but the brief transformation from hobbled human to free-flying drone was worth the effort.

In 2015, Stumbaugh won the first sanctioned drone race in the U.S., an open competition that anyone was eligible to join. Since then, she’s flown in and won many more races, and she says that her trophy collection can no longer fit on its shelf. “I’m literally starting to stuff them in other parts of my room, and I’m running out of places,” she says. Even so, Stumbaugh is struggling to make a living via drone-flying; she says she recently lost a sponsor that ran out of funding and supplements her winnings by teaching drone classes part time at the college she dropped out of four years ago. “It’s almost like I’m an unemployed pro pilot,” she says.

Stumbaugh says that since she criticized the DRL publicly last year for not hiring female pilots—and for the divisive decision to hold the Season 3 championship in Saudi Arabia, a country with terrible track records in gender equality and LGBT rights—some sponsors and other organizations have become more proactive about promoting female pilots. She’s optimistic about the effect of the first World Drone Racing Championships, which will be held by the World Air Sports Federation (FAI), an organization associated with the Olympics, in Shenzhen, China, in early November. Each team of five pilots that participates in the event is required to include at least one female pilot. “We’re probably gonna see 20 or so different teams from around the world, and the highest rate of female pilots that any drone race has seen yet,” Stumbaugh says. “Hopefully that will give a stage to the female pilots around the world that are good and give them a little bit more of a spotlight.”

But Stumbaugh says there are institutional obstacles still standing in the way of a more egalitarian makeup. She says that some women aren’t comfortable posting to social media—a vital part of drone-racer discovery—because they’re worried that the mostly male audience will judge their appearance, and she also opines that the racing community can at times resemble a “dick-measuring contest” that has caused her to gravitate toward freestyle, a separate sphere of the drone-competition world where participants are assessed based on the tricks they perform rather than how quickly they reach the finish line. Each high-profile race that doesn’t feature female racers helps perpetuate the problem. “The one thing we hear from male pilots is they saw drone racing on TV and they thought it was cool, so they got into it,” she says. “It’s a representation thing. If you don’t have female pilots being represented, then women that might potentially be interested on TV just see it as a male-dominated thing, and it trickles down.”

Stumbaugh thinks there’s a simple solution: “Just include women, and we’ll have more women in it,” she says. Horbaczewski, meanwhile, calls it “a very challenging thing” and “a very complicated question,” adding that “there are a ton of women out there that compete in drone racing at an amateur level, and they get better every year. They just haven’t been breaking through to the pro level in numbers yet. … We are hopeful that there will be more women competing at a professional level in the near future.”

Lopsided representation is one of several questions that the DRL (and drone racing in general) will have to resolve to move further along what Horbaczewski calls the “path to cultural relevance.” Prime among them is that drones are regarded with some suspicion by people who see them as surveillance tools and/or annoying neighbors. “People don’t quite understand what’s going on with drones or racing drones, and they’re kind of scary because they have a camera on them,” Temkin says. That perception isn’t easy to change without extended exposure to the sport, or at least to the soothing sound of Alex Trebek reading DRL-related clues on Jeopardy! This week, the DRL announced that as part of a partnership with Lockheed Martin, it will be holding a series of competitions that will put human operators against autonomous drones; someday, self-flying drones could join DRL races, which would also run the risk of stoking robot-related anxieties.

As a student of history, Horbaczewski tries to glean lessons from recent predecessors like CrossFit, the UFC, Formula E, and esports, but many of those organizations are still feeling their way forward as well. And the DRL has to deal with a wrinkle that other sports don’t: the FAA’s evolving regulations for drone flight, which mandate that every drone heavier than 0.55 pounds (the Racer3 weighs in at about 2.2 pounds) be registered, and that no drone reach altitudes of more than 400 feet. Horbaczewski, who says that the DRL is subject to the same regulatory environment as any citizen hobbyist, meets regularly with the agency to stay apprised of any plans that might impact his product.

That product is undeniably improving, not only in the capabilities of the racers and drones, but also in the broadcast presentation and the design of the courses, many of which work corporate sponsors into the arenas themselves to compensate for the lack of logo airtime during the brief races. This season will feature seven events, up from six last year, and Ellefson says next season will probably increase that total. Indoor venues must have a minimum of 80,000 square feet with tall ceilings and eye-catching architecture, but Ellefson, who identifies the Wizarding World of Harry Potter as her dream DRL destination, is always on the lookout for “unique and special, iconic locations” outdoors. “It’s hard to turn off the events part of your brain,” she says. “So even walking around the streets of New York City, you’re like, ‘This would be a really cool gate.’” Advancing technology keeps opening up possibilities. The Racer3 can go through smaller doorways and make tighter turns than the Racer2, which helped convince Ellefson to incorporate a maneuver last season called a “power loop,” in which drones fly fully inverted. She describes the DRL’s current drones as “lightly weatherproof,” but future models will be built to fly in more varied and picturesque terrain. “We want to mirror things like Nintendo did,” Gury says. “We want to have snow world, rain world, we want to have desert world. One day it would be great to go under water. The world becomes your race course.” By the time that tech is ready, maybe the world won’t be as wary of sharing real estate with drones.

No matter where a race takes place, drone flight appears unpredictable to people who aren’t holding the controls. “They seemingly change trajectory immediately, and it’s really very difficult to see where the drone is going, where it’s coming from, where it’s about to go next … who’s about to pass who, or who’s even in the lead,” Temkin says. He makes the spectacle sound a little like drone racing itself, the future of which is just as difficult to forecast.

Temkin says the industry is “still in its infancy,” and Horbaczewski places it at “the beginning of the beginning.” According to Temkin, the optimal speed of the drones depends in large part on how comfortable spectators are with what they’re seeing. The same could be said of the speed at which the DRL expands. It’s one thing for ESPN viewers to pause while flipping channels, momentarily captivated by the novelty of the glowing lights, strange sounds, and speeding objects. It’s another for enough of them to tune in by appointment to cement the DRL’s status as a viable business and make drone racing a long-term living for the up-and-coming pilots aiming for Temkin’s top spot. “I’m experiencing the world in a way that very few people get to experience it,” Temkin says. “Then the speed adds that adrenaline, the thrill that really makes you keep coming back for more.” In the DRL’s vision for its own race to relevance, enough of that adrenaline will rub off on viewers for them to keep returning too.

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