The Drone Racing League wants to be the new frontier of sports

The league melds emerging technology with traditional racing.

Colorful drones flying in the dark

“The difference is we are a technology-driven sport, really tailor-made for this next generation and developing the new playing field of sports,” DRL president Rachel Jacobson told Protocol.

Photo: Drone Racing League

Imagine you’re watching the Indy 500. Cars zip loudly around the track as you sit in a packed crowd, fans screaming with excitement. Now imagine that those cars are drones, flying through obstacles at 90 mph, leaving trails of bright lights behind them and weaving through a swarm of onlookers.

Meet the Drone Racing League, a professional sports company that combines emerging technology with traditional racing. Since it was founded seven years ago, the league has scored multiple partnerships, including with T-Mobile, the U.S. Air Force and Champion. It’s been broadcasted on NBC and has amassed more than 6 million followers across TikTok, Facebook and Instagram.

“Think of the Drone Racing League like any other professional global sports property,” Rachel Jacobson, the league’s president, told Protocol. “The difference is we are a technology-driven sport, really tailor-made for this next generation and developing the new playing field of sports.”

A sport for the tech-savvy

Taking pages from other professional sports leagues, entertainment is at the heart of DRL. But it’s also focused on creating a new way for young people to think about sports. “We want to help this next generation really think about other career opportunities in sports. If they want to be a professional athlete, now they can be a professional drone pilot,” Jacobson said. The company runs the DRL Academy, which teaches people how to pilot drones using an at-home simulator, and DRL Labs, which works to develop and advance drone technology.

While anyone can apply to be a league pilot, the competition is fierce. The league hosts qualifying races every year prior to its first race, drawing in thousands of competitors for just 12 spots, Jacobson said. Despite its competitive nature, the league aims to make the sport inclusive. “There's opportunities for every ethnicity, geography, gender to compete shoulder-to-shoulder, very different from other sports where they have separate leagues,” she said.

Like most professional sports leagues, brand deals and partnerships are a major part of the Drone Racing League’s business model. But its partnerships are more targeted at a tech-savvy audience than your typical sports league. For example, last August, it teamed up with T-Mobile to build the first-of-its-kind 5G-powered racing drone. “Our demographic is very sophisticated. They can see through logos — we're not just putting that out there. It's got to be incredible programs that they can be part of.”

The league announced last week that it's partnering with Google Cloud for its upcoming race in October; Google will collect data that can be used by developers to optimize drone and pilot performance. While optimizing the drones is obviously a plus for the game, the league also uses race data to make drones better for enterprise and humanitarian work.

A colorful, lit square on an outdoor stage reading DRL and Google Cloud For the league's upcoming race in October, Google will collect data that can be used by developers to optimize drone and pilot performance.Photo: Drone Racing League

Developers going to the conference will be allowed to participate in a competition using data collected by Google Cloud to predict race outcomes and provide tips to the pilots to enhance their performance. The competition has three stages over the course of two races, and the top developer to predict the best outcomes by the final race will get an expenses-paid trip to the season finale of the DRL’s championship.

Real-world potential

DRL Labs works with Draganfly, a drone manufacturing company, to develop drones for commercial uses such as transportation and delivery, as well as humanitarian aid like disaster relief. The races provide a testing ground for these innovations, Jacobson said.

Cameron Chell, CEO of Draganfly, said the lab is working on tech that’s “complementary to improving drone capabilities and services,” such as Vital Intelligence technology, which can read people's vital signs from a drone, or specialized balancing and lift capabilities. These can be implemented in humanitarian aid situations, Chell said, such as medicine or supply delivery to “besieged, weather-stricken or remote locations.” Drones can also be used to detect landmines.

Drones are already gaining traction in commercial spaces. In June, Amazon began testing the waters for drone delivery starting with customers in Lockeford, and plenty of startups are working on bringing drones into the mainstream. They still haven’t been widely popularized in humanitarian spaces, but Chell is hopeful that will change. “Public safety will be a leading, fast-growing sector for drones,” he told Protocol. “Drones are now being integrated into these critical services as a key aspect of operations.”

And as drone technology and use cases grow — whether its racing, commercial tech, data analytics or aid — the DRL wants to be a part of it. “This is really about building bespoke technology to show off as a real-world case study,” Jacobson said. “The beating heart of DRL is technology.”

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