Drone racing zips, glides and zooms into the mainstream

In just a matter of years, drone racing has gone from an underground affair held in back streets and car parks to an internationally televised sport with standardised kit and professional competitors. We spoke Nicholas Horbaczewski, CEO of the Drone Racing League, about the sport’s meteoric rise

In the history of the world, there can’t be many sports that have gone from inception to 70 million viewers in half a decade, but drone racing has done just that.

While it started off with a group of enthusiasts racing home-made kit in empty public spaces, now, thanks to the Drone Racing League, it’s a glossy, highly regulated event, broadcast in 75 countries around the world on major channels such as ESPN in the US and Sky Sports in the UK.

“The Drone Racing League is a global circuit of professional drone racers, so we take the very best pilots in the world and we stage large-scale events with complex three-dimensional racecourses in interesting spaces,” explains Nicholas Horbaczewski, CEO of the Drone Racing League (DRL).

“People call drone racing the real-life video game; it has elements of e-sports and it has elements of real-life racing and I think we can adapt the best of those worlds and continue to grow what we are doing. Our goal is to build a major global sport and that’s what we are setting out to do.”

Drone racing: from amateur to professional

While the neon-lit world of the DRL is taking the sport to epic places, drone racing began as a humble affair run by enthusiasts.

Images courtesy of the Drone Racing League

“The sport of drone racing actually emerged about five years ago,” says Horbaczewski. “It cropped up in places like Australia and France first, and it really spread around the globe.

“I first encountered drone racing in early 2015 and by then it was a global community of folks who were drone racing in underground races; they’d meet up in fields and parking lots and race home-made drones.”

With the sport ready with a strong, underground following, Horbaczewski set about turning it into something that could be enjoyed by the masses.

“What the DRL has come in and done is professionalised it,” he says. “We developed professional equipment to enable the racing, so we developed all our own technology in both the drones and the radio systems, and then we built the professional global circuit, found content distribution for it through top-tier broadcasters and brought it to a mainstream audience.”

Making drone racing a sport

The early form of drone racing was certainly competitive and entertaining, but it didn’t have the standardised qualities required for it to be recognised as, or to function as, a televised sport.

“The reality is that when we started DRL, which was just about two years ago now, the real challenge was that the technology to do this didn’t exist,” explains Horbaczewski.

“While there was casual, amateur drone racing going on, there was no professional-level equipment that would allow you to do the event with the level of reliability that you need for a spectator sport, and frankly for it to be really considered sport at all.”

As a result, the DRL was initially a technology company, developing its own custom racing drones and radio systems to meet the needs of the fast-paced sport.

“We spent our first year in stealth developing technology, patenting innovations around drones, around radio systems and so that was really the major challenge,” he says.

“Once we had developed the technology we started doing the races, and we discovered that it’s very challenging to film the racing, because you have drones the size of dinner plates going 120km an hour through a hallway, and so we had to develop new systems to film them.”

However, once the DRL had developed the systems, they didn’t find it hard to get major broadcasters onboard.

“Once we had both those pieces and we showed it to the ESPN and Sky, they got very excited and got behind us right away,” he adds. “So the real challenge wasn’t convincing them, it was being able to actually do it and show it to them and have them understand potential of drone racing.”

The F1 of drones

Consumer and professional drones have seen an explosion in recent years, with rapid advancements in technology and capabilities, however they’re cumbersome, slow-moving lumps compared to the racing drones of the DRL.

“Racing drones are very different from the kind of camera drones you’d go out and buy on the high street; these are very specialised craft,” says Horbaczewski. “I would say camera drones that people buy are sort of like lorries: they’re a functional craft with a very specific purpose. These racing drones are like Formula 1 cars: they’re built for speed, performance and sport.”

And like Formula 1 cars, the racing drones are constantly being improved and updated.

“The technology in the drone space broadly is moving so quickly. The one we race in the 2017 season is called the Racer 3, although that name is misleading; it’s one of many, many iterations of the drone,” he explains.

Racing drones are like Formula 1 cars: they’re built for speed, performance and sport

“The reality is between every one of our events we’ll make a change or improvement of the drone. So even during the course of the season we’re updating the drone. We did a massive overhaul between 2016 and 2017, and likely will do the same thing between 2017 and 2018.

“I do think the analogy to car racing is a good one in that way in that we are really pushing the boundaries of speed and performance in drones, and I think those advancements will find an opportunity to be out in the broader commercial world in drones as time moves on.”

However, it’s not just the drones that the DRL had to develop. Each drone requires two different radio systems: one that broadcasts the video feed to the pilot’s FPV headset so they can see where the drone is going, and one that provides an uplink from the pilot’s controller so that they can operate the drone. And developing systems that could effectively meet these needs was not an easy challenge.

“The video transmission has to be ultralow latency; it has to have less than 16 milliseconds of latency so the pilot will be able to fly, and the control system has to be completely uninterrupted.

“We race indoors in complex spaces that weave through buildings, where the drones at times will be a kilometre or more away from the pilot, separated by many feet of walls in concrete and reinforced steel,” explains Horbaczewski.

“A radio system that allows the drone to operate under those tight parameters in these complex and dense space simply just didn’t exist, so we had to create it; we have a number of patents on radio systems and radio design that emerged from our work to develop a radio system that would facilitate this kind of racing.”

Pro drone racers

Away from the kit, drone racing also presents significant demands on the pilots. You might have had a spin on a quadcopter, but that’s nothing compared to the challenge of controlling an unassisted racing drone.

“It is extremely hard to race drones; these are fully manual drones, so there’s no stabilisation, there’s no computer-assistance in flying, so they’re truly controlling power to the four different motors and controlling all the dimensions of flight that way,” he says. “Learning to fly a racing drone is challenging, to reach the professional levels you really have to be very exceptional at flying drones.”

However, while you might think the DRL pilots are all seasoned drone pilots, they actually come from a variety of different backgrounds.

“Some of them are people who were very into RC aeroplanes and helicopters, so have that remote control flying experience; some of them are people who are very into speed sports, so a number of our pilots come from either motorcycle racing or car racing, and then some of them are just gamers; they’re people who are very good at video games and can translate that skill to racing drones,” explains Horbaczewski.

“In fact, one of the pilots in the league this year qualified for his spot by winning a video game tournament. We have a simulator that teaches you how to fly a racing drone without having to join a lot of physical drones, and so we did a contest where people compete on the simulator and he won that, earned his spot in the league. He actually did very well this season.”

What makes a good drone racing course?

The missing piece of the drone racing puzzle is, of course, the courses. And thanks to the three-dimensional nature of the sport, the DRL can host its races in some fairly unorthodox locations.

“We’ve raced in everything from an NFL stadium to an abandoned mall to Alexandra Palace in London,” he says. “We try to take full advantage of the fact that our sport has that wonderful unique element, and so we race in very diverse spaces.”

However, this doesn’t mean that every space is suitable for drone racing.

“You need certain things to make a space work for drone racing: it’s got to be big enough, so we need quite a bit of space because the drones are going very, very fast and it needs to be complex enough to create interesting lines for them to race through,” Horbaczewski says.

“But we try to get as creative as we possibly can with the venues we bring in, and we look at a lot of different spaces. Alexandra Palace is the perfect example of the kind of unique space which is perfectly suited for drone racing, but would not have hosted any other kind of racing sport in the past.”

Onwards and upwards

With the DRL’s second season already airing, Horbaczewski has big plans for the sport’s growth.

“It’s sort of onward and upward for us. We went from five events in 2016 to six events in 2017, and we did our first races outside of the United States, we did a race in Munich and a race in London, so we are expanding our geographic footprint,” he says. “The 2017 season will be broadcast on TV in over 75 countries, and we were on about 40 in 2016, so we’re almost doubling the number of countries that we’ll be reaching with our content.”

In time, drone racing could even become as popular as F1.

“People call drone racing the real-life video game; it has elements of e-sports and it has elements of real-life racing, and I think we can adapt the best of those worlds and continue to grow what we are doing,” he says. “Our goal is to build a major global sport and that’s what we are setting out to do.”

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World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has died at the age of 76. When Hawking was diagnosed with motor neurone disease aged 22, doctors predicted he would live just a few more years. But in the ensuing 54 years he married, kept working and inspired millions of people around the world. In his last few years, Hawking was outspoken of the subject of AI, and Factor got the chance to hear him speak on the subject at Web Summit 2017…

Stephen Hawking was often described as being a vocal critic of AI. Headlines were filled with predictions of doom by from scientist, but the reality was more complex.

Hawking was not convinced that AI was to become the harbinger of the end of humanity, but instead was balanced about its risks and rewards, and at a compelling talk broadcast at Web Summit, he outlined his perspectives and what the tech world can do to ensure the end results are positive.

Stephen Hawking on the potential challenges and opportunities of AI

Beginning with the potential of artificial intelligence, Hawking highlighted the potential level of sophistication that the technology could reach.

“There are many challenges and opportunities facing us at this moment, and I believe that one of the biggest of these is the advent and impact of AI for humanity,” said Hawking in the talk. “As most of you may know, I am on record as saying that I believe there is no real difference between what can be achieved by a biological brain and what can be achieved by a computer.

“Of course, there is unlimited potential for what the human mind can learn and develop. So if my reasoning is correct, it also follows that computers can, in theory, emulate human intelligence and exceed it.”

Moving onto the potential impact, he began with an optimistic tone, identifying the technology as a possible tool for health, the environment and beyond.

“We cannot predict what we might achieve when our own minds are amplified by AI. Perhaps with the tools of this new technological revolution, we will be able to undo some of the damage done to the natural world by the last one: industrialisation,” he said.

“We will aim to finally eradicate disease and poverty; every aspect of our lives will be transformed.”

However, he also acknowledged the negatives of the technology, from warfare to economic destruction.

“In short, success in creating effective AI could be the biggest event in the history of our civilisation, or the worst. We just don’t know. So we cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI, or ignored by it and sidelined or conceivably destroyed by it,” he said.

“Unless we learn how to prepare for – and avoid – the potential risks, AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilisation. It brings dangers like powerful autonomous weapons or new ways for the few to oppress the many. It could bring great disruption to our economy.

“Already we have concerns that clever machines will be increasingly capable of undertaking work currently done by humans, and swiftly destroy millions of jobs. AI could develop a will of its own, a will that is in conflict with ours and which could destroy us.

“In short, the rise of powerful AI will be either the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity.”

In the vanguard of AI development

In 2014, Hawking and several other scientists and experts called for increased levels of research to be undertaken in the field of AI, which he acknowledged has begun to happen.

“I am very glad that someone was listening to me,” he said.

However, he argued that there is there is much to be done if we are to ensure the technology doesn’t pose a significant threat.

“To control AI and make it work for us and eliminate – as far as possible – its very real dangers, we need to employ best practice and effective management in all areas of its development,” he said. “That goes without saying, of course, that this is what every sector of the economy should incorporate into its ethos and vision, but with artificial intelligence this is vital.”

Addressing a thousands-strong crowd of tech-savvy attendees at the event, he urged them to think beyond the immediate business potential of the technology.

“Perhaps we should all stop for a moment and focus our thinking not only on making AI more capable and successful, but on maximising its societal benefit”

“Everyone here today is in the vanguard of AI development. We are the scientists. We develop an idea. But you are also the influencers: you need to make it work. Perhaps we should all stop for a moment and focus our thinking not only on making AI more capable and successful, but on maximising its societal benefit,” he said. “Our AI systems must do what we want them to do, for the benefit of humanity.”

In particular he raised the importance of working across different fields.

“Interdisciplinary research can be a way forward, ranging from economics and law to computer security, formal methods and, of course, various branches of AI itself,” he said.

“Such considerations motivated the American Association for Artificial Intelligence Presidential Panel on Long-Term AI Futures, which up until recently had focused largely on techniques that are neutral with respect to purpose.”

He also gave the example of calls at the start of 2017 by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) the introduction of liability rules around AI and robotics.

“MEPs called for more comprehensive robot rules in a new draft report concerning the rules on robotics, and citing the development of AI as one of the most prominent technological trends of our century,” he summarised.

“The report calls for a set of core fundamental values, an urgent regulation on the recent developments to govern the use and creation of robots and AI. [It] acknowledges the possibility that within the space of a few decades, AI could surpass human intellectual capacity and challenge the human-robot relationship.

“Finally, the report calls for the creation of a European agency for robotics and AI that can provide technical, ethical and regulatory expertise. If MEPs vote in favour of legislation, the report will go to the European Commission, which will decide what legislative steps it will take.”

Creating artificial intelligence for the world

No one can say for certain whether AI will truly be a force for positive or negative change, but – despite the headlines – Hawking was positive about the future.

“I am an optimist and I believe that we can create AI for the world that can work in harmony with us. We simply need to be aware of the dangers, identify them, employ the best possible practice and management and prepare for its consequences well in advance,” he said. “Perhaps some of you listening today will already have solutions or answers to the many questions AI poses.”

You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted or expected, and to think big

However, he stressed that everyone has a part to play in ensuring AI is ultimately a benefit to humanity.

“We all have a role to play in making sure that we, and the next generation, have not just the opportunity but the determination to engage fully with the study of science at an early level, so that we can go on to fulfill our potential and create a better world for the whole human race,” he said.

“We need to take learning beyond a theoretical discussion of how AI should be, and take action to make sure we plan for how it can be. You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted or expected, and to think big.

“We stand on the threshold of a brave new world. It is an exciting – if precarious – place to be and you are the pioneers. I wish you well.”