The National Drone Racing Championships brought hobbyists and big corporations together for a spectacle that's quickly growing in popularity.
On the first weekend of August on New York City's Governor's Island, a group of 150 drone pilots stood transfixed behind first-person-view (FPV) goggles streaming live video feeds from their high-performance custom aircraft. As they flicked their fingers on remote controllers, their drones screamed through hoops and around obstacles at 60 miles per hour.
The pilots were competing for a $50,000 grand prize in the Drone Sports Association's (DSA) second-annual U.S. National Drone Racing Championships, the signature event of what a handful of entrepreneurs, hackers, and radio-control hobbyists hope to turn into the next big spectator sport.
"Developing a new sport takes a lot of time and money, but we've reached a tipping point," says Tim Nilson, the founder of Lumenier, an FPV drone manufacturer. Nilson, a board member of Drone Sports Association, says drone racing is quickly gaining momentum despite still being in its "black-and-white-television days."
Zachry "A_Nub" Thayer took home the day's top prize. Paul "Bulbufet" Nurkkala came in second place, while Christopher "M3" Wang finished third. The 150 pilots at the championships had advanced from 20 qualifying competitions with a total of 1,400 pilots across the U.S. over the past year.
The event was broadcast on ESPN's streaming service and sponsored by GoPro, AIG, Ernst & Young, and other corporations. Greg French, founder of FPV goggle manufacturer Fat Shark, says he is amazed by how quickly big business has gotten involved in drone racing. The sport began forming in 2014 after a group of RC enthusiasts in France uploaded a video to YouTube. Last year saw the first serious race at the World Drone Prix in Dubai, where a 15-year-old pilot won $250,000.
"Just a few years ago, all of this was a small community of people getting together to play with quads and wings," French says.
DSA is not the only company trying to create a global professional racing league. Tough Mudder founder Nicholas Horbaczewski's Drone Racing League has raised $8 million hosting races (without a live audience) and posting videos online. Aerial Sports League is opening a drone racing complex in San Francisco, while DR1, yet another league, will stream videos of its races via gaming platform Twitch.
Drone Sports Association, however, is trying to make drone racing a live spectator sport. Nilson says with the help of ESPN, DSA can capture an audience of young people, as well as older RC hobbyists and others generally interested in tech.
Jon Ollwerther, COO of Brooklyn-based Aerobo, a company that designs and operates drones for news, film, and sports, is similarly optimistic about the fortunes of drone racing as a whole.
"It's like if Twitch and Nascar had a baby," he says. "We will soon see drone racing as a global sport."