LOS ANGELES, Calif.—On a hot day in April, I drove to a divey-looking sound stage in North Hollywood. It was camouflaged in an unnoticeable compound of warehouses off a busy boulevard.
What I found inside was a dimly lit maze of structures, accented by the circus glow of neon LEDs. The people who were leading me through the maze were professional Hollywood-types, people making a TV show that would compete for kids’ and families’ attention in a modern cacophony of media stimulus. They were betting on the appeal of an indoor micro-drone race.
These tiny drones are lightweight and go a lot slower (15-20mph) than the bigger quadcopters we tend to think about. They have little bumpers around their propellers to keep them from breaking if they come in contact with a structure (or a human) as they make their way through the indoor course. But these tiny drones are also nimble and safer to fly, and you don’t need an FAA license to fly them outside if you so choose. They can bump into each other and survive. This is what makes them the perfect gateway toy for kids who want to get into drones, says Brad Foxhoven, the founder of DR1 racing.
To race regular-sized drones, Foxhoven says, “you have to be an exceptional pilot, you have to be your own mechanic, if it crashes it’s dangerous.” But micro-drone racing is much more family-friendly, and the drones still go fast. “When we set this course up, we thought they’d get two to three laps,” he says. The pilots are regularly getting five laps through the course in the allotted time.
The set, by the way, is made of pieces of Serenity, the fictional spaceship from the TV series Firefly. It’s got that gritty, Joss Whedon, “space-future-but-bad” look that endeared fans to the show years ago. Parts of the ship have naturally been changed over the years, but a keen eye will spot similarities.
The micro-drone race has drone pilots compete in teams of two. Each pilot is allowed to learn the course before they race. The race is structured in a bracket format, so winning teams go on to compete against each other. An “anchor” pilot flies. If the partners can’t decide who will be anchor for that race, they race each other for the faster time, something that Foxhoven gleefully says will add drama to the edited version of the race show, which will air sometime this summer.
Bron Heussenstamm, a press representative for DR1, likened the show that would eventually come out of these days on set to an American Ninja Warrior or, for people of my generation, Double Dare. The trailer for the show, which you can watch below, definitely has that feel.
The real deal
Drone racing is still a nascent sport, but Foxhoven says talented pilots can make low to mid six figures if they start winning races. And sponsors are starting to play a bigger role because they “not only see [drone racing] as an emerging sport, but there’s the tech angle, there’s the STEM angle… and we’re cheaper than Nascar, we’re cheaper than F1, and we have that connection to kids and families.”
Shaun Taylor, a drone racer who placed first at the Drone World race in Hawaii in 2016, was on the set of the micro-drone race and told Ars that he gave up his career as a firefighter to build and race drones full time. He showed off some tricks in the parking lot outside the set and pointed out that his homemade drones are carefully engineered to weigh battery life against propeller and motor weight.
The drone Taylor was flying that day cost him $300 to build and is a bit of an enigma even to him. “These props on these motors with this battery should not work, but it does,” he told Ars. “So, at the same time, we’re all kind of like, umm, let’s just go fast.”
“At Drone World, I flew with a setup that shouldn’t have worked, and I won.” On that setup, flying at full speed would give him about a minute and 20 seconds before he’d have to start worrying about battery.
Taylor also says that drone racing is a mental sport more than anything.
“I have the skill, so to speak, but the nerves are something you can’t really… ” Taylor trailed off. “The only way to practice is to race.. Any other sport—you know, track—you get pumped up, you have all the adrenaline. But this, you have all the same adrenaline but you have to sit there, so it’s like literally: You’re in a track meet. You’re about to do a hundred-meter dash. You’re about to launch. And right before they hit the gun, you have to take a piece of thread and a needle and then take off. It’s hard being able to tame yourself that way, so strong mental game is gonna get you flying.”
Another top first-person-view (FPV) drone racer, Phil Freybott, also reflected on competing at the top of a very new field. Freybott, a German who currently lives in South Carolina and works for a company that’s helping build a car factory for Volvo, said he originally got into drone racing after watching his friends “racing in the forest with lights on their drones, like Star Wars.”
“I ordered one right away,” he said. Last year, he came in ninth at the world’s thus-far biggest drone race in Dubai.
Why drone racers think drone racing is the future
Foxhoven said he got the idea to start DR1 when he was at the park with his son a few years ago, and two guys showed up with similar drones. “I just instinctively looked at these two guys… and I go ‘I’m just curious, which one of you guys can get around that tree faster?’” The guys agreed to race, and people started to watch.
Video and racing together are the key, Foxhoven says, and that makes drone racing a bit more accessible than e-sports, which occupy the same space of future sports that sponsors are just now dipping their toes into. “I don’t think the public is ready for what’s about to happen,” the founder said. “e-sports—you can’t watch if you don’t know the rules.” But with drones, “I know the orange guy beat the green guy,” and that creates an immediate emotional response. It’s part of why non-football enthusiasts won’t watch the whole NFL season but will be willing to watch the Super Bowl.
There are a few stumbling blocks to drone racing (or micro-drone racing) being the next big sport, all the organizers agreed. For Foxhoven, more people need to get into drones as a hobby to make racing take off, and more sporting events need to be held to get people into the hobby. “Hobbies go to passion, passion goes to sport,” Foxhoven reasoned.
Freybott thinks that the key to making drone racing big will be improving how people watch the sport. “I think they have to work on the video feed,” he said, adding that high-quality live feeds are important.
Taylor took a far-future view, saying that the sport will really take off some day when there’s some element of real danger in the mix. I asked what kind of real danger he meant.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe people flying inside of them.”
Listing image by Megan Geuss