Drone racing: The sport of the future?

Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is investing $1 million in drone racing, bringing it one step closer to becoming a professional sport.

Darrin Phegley/The Gleaner via AP/File
Greg Lunquist (l.) gets help from Beck's employee Sean Nettleton (r.) as he pilots a drone during Beck's Hybrids regional field day at the company's research farm and distribution center in Henderson, Ky. Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015. Interest is growing in the commercial and recreational use of drones, a trend most recently marked by the announcement that real estate mogul and Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross will be investing competitive drone racing.

Forget race cars: Drones could be the future of racing.

Property developer and Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is investing $1 million in the Drone Racing League, a New York startup that aims to hold its first public race later this year, the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday. It’s a move that reflects the growing interest in drones for commercial and recreational use in the US, and brings first-person view (FPV) drone racing – till now an underground activity for hobbyists – one step closer to becoming a professional sport.

"The world of FPV racing is still tight-knit: It's a segment of a segment of the growing but still relatively small drone industry," says online magazine and video channel Motherboard. "But that might not be the case for long."

FPV racing involves flying four-propeller, or quadcopter, drones via remote control, using specialized goggles that send a live video feed from the cameras onboard the machine to the pilot on the ground. The drones vary in size, but can typically travel up to 100 miles per hour, and can fly several hundred feet above the ground.

“When you’re with somebody in the air, it’s like ‘Star Wars,’” Ryan Gury, co-founder of DroneKraft, told Motherboard, referring to pod racing à la “The Phantom Menace.”

“It’s a completely immersive experience that’ll make you feel like you’re flying,” Drone Racing League founder Nick Horbaczewski told the Wall Street Journal. “I felt it could be a sport that resonated with people because it touches on the heritage of racing, but also brings in the benefits of new technology.”

That very novelty, however, is one of the bumps that FPV racing faces on the road to ESPN.

For one thing, Federal Aviation Administration regulations surrounding drones – and thus drone racing – remain unclear. The FAA’s June 2014 interpretation of regulations on model aircraft specifically bars “goggles designed to provide a ‘first-person view’ from the model” because “would limit the operator’s field of view thereby reducing his or her ability to see-and-avoid other aircraft in the area.”

Yet the FAA expressed support for the first-ever US Drone National Championships, a two-day event held at the California State Fair in Sacramento last month, David Schneider wrote in IEEE Spectrum, a tech and engineering magazine. And while the competition’s organizers said the FAA’s approval was a step in the right direction, the disconnect between the agency’s words and its actions could prove problematic in the long run, Mr. Schneider noted.

What are the legal implications for people who want to practice for races, he asked, or those who never make it to FAA-approved competitions like the Nationals?

“How can they do that if the FAA still frowns on flying radio-controlled model aircraft by FPV in general?” Schneider wrote. “The answer … is muddy.”

There’s also the issue of making the sport more spectator-friendly. As The Verge reports:

Videos of drone racing on YouTube may rack up millions of views, but at the two-day competition in California only an estimated 60 spectators showed up to watch. Although this was partly blamed on the heat, watching drone racing in person is difficult because of the small size and speed of the aircraft.

Still, Mr. Ross, best known for real estate projects such as the Time Warner Center in New York and his stake in the Dolphins, said he sees potential in drone racing.

“I saw the opportunity to construct a platform of companies that could create new opportunities and dynamic experiences across sports, entertainment and technology,” he said in a written statement, according to the Wall Street Journal.

His team may also already have a solution to drone racing’s spectator problem in FanVision, a service developed to provide NASCAR fans access to streaming video from race cars on their smartphones, The Verge notes.

And there’s no lack of enthusiasm from those who want to see FPV racing succeed as a full-fledged sport.

“When people understand the sport, their fears about privacy and safety fall away," Zoe Stumbaugh, one of only two women competitors at the US Nationals, told The Christian Science Monitor. "They realize we’re out here to have fun, and that’s it.”

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