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Drone Racing Wants to Become a Professional Sport

The Drone Racing League just got $1 million from Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross

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smithsonian.com

It was only a matter of time before people started racing drones.

For the past several years, drones have constantly been in the news, whether they’re helping save people lost in the wilderness, bombing ISIS fighters, or being shot out of the sky over people's backyards. But now some drone enthusiasts are trying to elevate their hobby into a professional sport.

In recent years, small groups of pilots have gotten together to race their homemade drones through courses built in forests and abandoned buildings. And these aren’t just toy helicopters – pilots navigate around branches and gates at speeds up to 70 miles an hour, all the while watching the action through special goggles connected to cameras on their drones, which many say makes them feel like they are actually flying.

"I think anybody with any imagination gets into it,” pilot Ryan Gury tells Johnette Howard for ESPN. “You defy gravity. You feel like a superhero.”

Gury works as the newly-minted Drone Racing League’s chief of product, designing race courses for the fledgling professional league. While the DRL may have started out as one of many small hobbyist leagues, it not only hosted it's first nation championships, but also got a hefty boost this week in the form of a $1 million investment from Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, Howard writes.

Another company, RSE Ventures, backed the league Drone Racing League "We backed it because it has all the makings of a modern-day sport: Twitch meets Formula One," Matt Higgins, the president and CEO of Ross’ RSE Ventures, tells Howard. "The pilots have to have great reflexes and hone their skills over hours and hours of practice. And first-person viewing lends itself to an amazing spectator experience with virtual reality."

Like the rise of e-sports and professional gaming, drone racing is an international phenomenon and local leagues have popped up in Canada, the United Kingdom and France as well. But as much as the pilots may love racing, not all of them are thrilled to see it starting to go mainstream, David Stock writes for Ars Technica.

“Its a double edged sword,” pilot Matt Denham tells Stock. “It may become more acceptable but we may also see more stupidity,” referring to people who give drone pilots a bad reputation by flying too close to wildfires or commercial jets, to name a few recent incidents.

Drone races aren’t the only drone sport aiming to win the hearts of spectators: there are also leagues for pilots who want their drones to fight, a la mixed-martial arts cage fights. Although drone sports are still in their infancy, it’s possible that in a few years spectators might gather in stadiums and on the internet to watch drone pilots loop, spin, speed and fight their way to cheers of victory.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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