Is drone racing ready for the mainstream?

12:05 PM ET

NEW YORK — Dr. Scot Refsland didn’t know he was standing on hallowed ground in the aviation world. He was just looking for a scenic backdrop (and more importantly a legal area) to hold the U.S. National Drone Racing Championships in New York City. His journey eventually took him to the picnic point on Governors Island, with the Statue of Liberty to the left and the Manhattan skyline to the right, painting a picture-perfect postcard of the city.

What Refsland didn’t know at the time was that this was the same location where Wilbur Wright (of Wright brothers fame) built the first aerial canoe in 1909. Wright, wanting to fly over water for the first time, slung a canoe underneath the lower wing of a Flyer and made a historic 21-mile, 33-minute flight in front of a million onlookers in what would be his last public flight. He circled the Statue of Liberty and passed Grant’s Tomb, flying north over the Hudson along the west shore of Manhattan before safely returning to Governors Island.

“When I found out that this is where the Wright Brothers had their first flight over water, I got chills,” said Refsland, the co-founder and chairman of the Drone Sports Association (DSA). “That was the first realization of the dream of flying over water, and now we’re here realizing the next generation of human flight.”

The next generation of human flight isn’t so much humans actually flying, but feeling as if they’re flying. First-person-view (FPV) drone racing has caught on as a popular recreational sport over the past two years and is now being talked about as the next emerging sport on the heels of this past weekend’s national championship in New York and the first world championships in Hawaii in October.

“It taps right into an inherent DNA structure in humanity where we all have had the dream of flight,” Refsland said. “We’ve always wanted to fly. What flying first-person-view has given us is give us superpowers and made us superheroes. Now you can literally fly.”

There was a reason Refsland wanted to hold the U.S. National Drone Racing Championships in New York. He’s still selling the sport and his league to Madison Avenue, and what better way than going right up to the doorstep of prospective sponsors to do that. He would have held it in Times Square or Central Park if New York City’s rules and regulations on drones weren’t so strict. So he ended up getting as close as possible and inviting as many companies as would listen to him out to the races.

“I’ve met with 20-30 investors, and the first question I ask them is, ‘Have you ever flown FPV?’ And they say, ‘no,’ so I take out a little kit that I bring with me that I fly in boardrooms,” Refsland said. “It’s a little tiny drone and it’s got a camera on it, and I put it right on the boardroom table. And I give everyone in the room goggles and I take off, and half of them fall off their chairs right away. Then I fly down the halls and all the employees are on their feet and excited and it causes this huge buzz, and that’s when they get it. They suddenly have experienced the dream of flight that has been embedded in their brains. I’ve unlocked that understanding of why people are attracted to it and why this is growing so fast.”

GoPro was the title sponsor of the U.S. National Drone Racing Championships, which was the first event aired on ESPN as part of a multiyear, international media distribution deal with DSA. Other sponsors included AIG, Ernst Young, Vizio and Ecko Unltd. Many executives from other companies were invited to make the trek to Governors Island, where they got their first taste of drone racing. The execs were hosted inside a white hospitality tent near the finish line and treated to an open bar and hors d’oeuvres, and plenty of FPV goggles. On top of each table in the tent was a Harvard Business Review study on drones and drone racing.

“This drone race was designed to build the business and build the model,” Refsland said. “It’s in New York City and a 10-minute ferry ride from Wall Street, and a lot of CEOs from Fortune 500 companies are here that are investors and scouts looking at this. We told our pilots that this is your golden moment. Put on your best Sunday suit and fly your best, and we’re going to match you with companies and kick-start the money flow.”

The money has already started flowing into drone racing, but there’s not just one pot for that money, as a few leagues have popped up. In addition to the Drone Sports Association, there’s the Drone Racing League and the International Drone Racing Association. Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has invested $1 million in the Drone Racing League through his investment firm RSE Ventures. CAA Ventures, the venture capital arm of talent firm Creative Artists Agency, has also invested into the league. “We’re in the golden hour, and we’re all in the jockeying position of who’s going to control what,” Refsland said. “It’s an exciting time for everyone.”

Zoe Stumbaugh was in tears as she explained the way she feels when she puts on her FPV goggles and races. A series of medical complications and surgeries led her to being bedridden for two years and unable to ride her motorcycle. One day a friend suggested she find another hobby; she bought a drone and her life hasn’t been the same since. “I could get outside of my own body and be like a bird and be free,” she said. “It gets my adrenaline going. It’s a very surreal, deep experience. It’s an escape. I’ve been able to fly and it’s given me my life back. Otherwise, I’d be in pain all the time and I wouldn’t want to do anything.”

Stumbaugh, 25, lives in Sana Cruz, California, and she is not only one of the few female pilots in the sport but also one of the best in the country. Her ability to outperform men is one of the reasons she hopes the sport will catch on with other females.

“There are not enough women in this sport, and this is one of the few sports where you have an even playing field with the men across the board,” Stumbaugh said. “It all comes down to your brain and finger movements. I know some very dexterous ladies out there that could do this sport just as good as any of the guys. I’m hoping we’ll start seeing more women competing in the next year.”

The beauty of drone racing during this infancy period is that just about anyone can compete if they have the means to drop about $1,000 on a fast drone and then start practicing. That’s how Conrad Miller, 37, and his son, Sorell, 12, who live in Boise, Idaho, ended up at the nationals not as fans but as competitors. They are first and only father-son tandem to compete at the two-year-old event.

“It feels like we’re back at home,” said Sorell. “We compete against each other every Sunday, and doing it here at a race like this is different because there are other people involved, but it makes me feel like I’m at home competing against my dad. I don’t know what it feels like to be as old as everyone else here. I’m just having fun.”

FPV video on YouTube turned many hobbyists into full-fledged drone addicts because they could see what drone operators were capable of with their machines. Suddenly, a drone that was used by many simply to fly around in a park on the weekend was flying through deserted buildings and near cliffs too dangerous to navigate by foot.

“The big kick-starter for us was a pilot named Charpu, Carlos Puertolas,” Refsland said. “He’s a Spaniard who lives in the U.S., and he got to the same place many hobbyists were in, where it’s not that fun flying circles. So when FPV came, he saw that it gave a breath of fresh air into the sport. He came to one of our shows two years ago and did all these tricks nobody had ever seen before and was flying this airframe nobody had ever seen before, and everyone started copying him. That was the real catalyst that started this whole thing.”

Puertolas, one of the head animators for DreamWorks Animation in Glendale, California, has been posting videos on his YouTube page for the past two years and has almost 4 million views. In an infant sport void of legends, he’s as close to that status as possible; he took pictures and signed autographs while walking around Governors Island before the races.

“It’s a great feeling when someone says they started doing something that they love because of you,” Puertolas said. “The first time you try FPV it feels like an out-of-body experience. When you get good it becomes second nature, and at that point it does feels like you’re able to switch into a different body that is much more agile and can do things you cannot do physically. You have this freedom of movement and can go superfast without getting hurt. It’s really like you’re a superhero with a superpowers.”

The most popular comparison to drone racing is auto racing, only smaller and in the air. At least that’s the dream of league organizers and sponsors, who would love to see the fledgling sport become that popular and lucrative someday.

“We want to build the next NASCAR of drone racing,” Refsland said. “Up to this point, this has all been run by nerds standing in a field flying gnats. Now we’re thinking about the fans and the spectators. We have a barrier that is 5 feet from the netting, and the netting is 5 feet from the racing. We have huge JumboTrons showing the races and showing who is in first. We’ve numbered all the racers and color-coded them. When Dale Earnhardt Jr. walks out, you know it’s him. We want to have the same thing here. We’re going to rank them so if Las Vegas wants to create odds and take bets on the races, they have the rankings.”

The biggest issue at the moment for drone racing is that what makes it so addictive for the pilots is also what makes it so hard to enjoy for casual spectators. While the FPV goggles make pilots feel as if they are sitting in the cockpit of a plane they are flying, soaring over and around obstacles, many of the spectators on Governors Island over the weekend had a hard time deciphering which pilot was manning which drone and had no idea who was in first place. From afar, it looked like eight oversized bugs buzzing around in circles, with one occasionally splattering on an iron beam or Plexiglas wall. The fans who put on goggles to see what the pilots were looking at quickly took them off because of the quality. The FPV footage for live races is still mostly in standard definition and looks like grainy footage shot from an old home video camera in need of tracking adjustment.

“I think it could be a good sport for TV if the FPV was high definition,” said Juan Pablo Montoya, who has won races in Formula One, CART, IRL, IndyCar, Grand-Am and NASCAR. “I think visually you have to come with goggles to be able to appreciate it because they’re so small and they fly so quickly. I think as the sport grows, the drones will be bigger and tougher and easier to see, but I think the potential is there. I think it could potentially be huge and a fun spectator sport to watch.”

Montoya, who has his own drones and has been into remote-controlled cars, boats and helicopters for years, attended the races on Governors Island last weekend and talked to pilots as they put the final touches on their planes.

“I love the technology behind it and how it has evolved over the years from the goggles to the radios to the equipment,” he said. “This is a great hobby that can become a great sport.”

A few hours before the Cleveland Indians were scheduled to play the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on Friday, Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer was walking around the pilots tent at the nationals. Wearing a backpack with his three drones hanging from the outside, Bauer looked more like a competitor than a spectator.

“I just enjoy flying, so anytime I can come out and be around other pilots and see what they do, it’s a good time for me,” said Bauer, who majored in mechanical engineering at UCLA. “I actually design my own frames on the computer and 3-D print all the parts I need. I’m very involved in the whole engineering process. It’s the most fun I have. It’s the closest thing you can get to flying. Anytime anyone asks me about it, I have them put on the goggles and try it. That’s the only way you can understand the feeling.” Bauer, who travels with his drones and flies them on the road as well as at home, said he had a rush similar to being on the mound when he flew his drone through Devil’s Bridge in Sedona, Arizona, during spring training earlier this year.

“I really enjoy that feeling,” Bauer said. “That feeling is one of the things I enjoy most about baseball, so it’s cool to be able to put on goggles and experience that feeling. I think the more people that try it, the bigger this sport will get. There’s nothing quite like it.”

As Bauer walked around the tents meeting many of the pilots he follows on social media, Refsland thought about all the fans and pilots he would be reaching during the nationals in New York and how many new fans and pilots could become hooked on drone racing in the immediate aftermath.

“We’re hoping so many people watched or heard or read about the races this weekend that Amazon will be sold out of drones by next week,” Refsland said. “We’re hoping everyone gets involved. Who wouldn’t want to realize their dream of flying?”



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