When I first heard the Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross had invested in the Drone Racing League (DRL) I thought he had finally lost his mind. Sure, the Dolphins have been rather brutal lately (well, maybe since Dan Marino's knees gave out), but drone racing? Surely this billionaire NFL owner could find better things to do with his money.
Many months later, it seems apparent why Ross is worth USD $7.4 billion and I may have my foot in my mouth.
This week, ESPN and DRL announced a multi-year agreement to bring the thrill of FPV racing to the masses, covering telecast and digital distribution in North, South and Central America and the Caribbean. From a broadcasting perspective, a big question lingers; will it work? Will the masses actually tune in to watch six goggle-clad pilots racing drones through giant obstacle courses, bumping, sliding, and crashing into objects -- and each other? ESPN tested the concept this past August by broadcasting the U.S. National Drone Racing Championships live from New York City. The results seemed promising as ESPN looks at drone racing as a sports that captures the imagination of America's youth -- much like NASCAR did a generation or two before.
And therein lies the comparison and the value that the UAV (sUAS) industry should expect to receive from entities like the Drone Racing League. Oblivious to many, NASCAS was a driving factor behind many elements of automotive innovation and safety. Hood scoops that help cool engine and feed them more air, spoilers that help stabilize vehicles at high speeds, and safety restraints that securely slow a driver from crashing into the steering wheel rather then locking them in immediately are all innovations that came out of NASCAS and auto racing. Some are already pointing to the sport of drone racing as a similar catalyst that will help drive awareness and innovation within the entire UAV industry.
"Drone racing is a sport still in its infancy. It is not yet clear whether it will become a massively popular sport, " says Jack Langelaan, The Conversation. "If it does, we could see very exciting advances coming from drone racing into both the toys that we fly in our living rooms and parks and into the drones used by professional videographers, engineers and scientists."
Regardless of how the Drone Racing League is ultimately received by the audience of ESPN, one fact is indisputable; building, customizing, and racing UAV's is a sport that has captured the imagination of a substantial portion of today's youth. Like motorcycles in the 1930's, automobiles in the 1950's and 60's, and computers in the 1970's and 80's, drones are the next "cool thing" to be associated with.
Savvy companies interested in playing in the UAV space would do well to keep their eyes on emerging talent coming out of the assorted drone racing associations. Chances are that the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates could be working on a drone project right now. Time will tell the story.