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.”

Scientists, software developers and artists have begun using VR to visualise genes and predict disease

A group of scientists, software developers and artists have taken to using virtual reality (VR) technology to visualise complex interactions between genes and their regulatory elements.

The team, which comprises of members from Oxford University, Universita’ di Napoli and Goldsmiths, University of London, have been using VR to visualise simulations of a composite of data from genome sequencing, data on the interactions of DNA and microscopy data.

When all this data is combined the team are provided with an interactive, 3D image that shows where different regions of the genome sit relative to others, and how they interact with each other.

“Being able to visualise such data is important because the human brain is very good at pattern recognition – we tend to think visually,” said Stephen Taylor, head of the Computational Biology Research Group at Oxford’s MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine (WIMM).

“It began at a conference back in 2014 when we saw a demonstration by researchers from Goldsmiths who had used software called CSynth to model proteins in three dimensions. We began working with them, feeding in seemingly incomprehensible information derived from our studies of the human alpha globin gene cluster and we were amazed that what we saw on the screen was an instantly recognisable model.”

The team believe that being able to visualise the interactions between genes and their regulatory elements will allow them to understand the basis of human genetic diseases, and are currently applying their techniques to study genetic diseases such as diabetes, cancer and multiple sclerosis.

“Our ultimate aim in this area is to correct the faulty gene or its regulatory elements and be able to re-introduce the corrected cells into a patient’s bone marrow: to perfect this we have to fully understand how genes and their regulatory elements interact with one another” said Professor Doug Higgs, a principal researcher at the WIMM.

“Having virtual reality tools like this will enable researchers to efficiently combine their data to gain a much broader understanding of how the organisation of the genome affects gene expression, and how mutations and variants affect such interactions.”

There are around 37 trillion cells in the average adult human body, and each cell contains two meters of DNA tightly packed into its nucleus.

While the technology to sequence genomes is well established, it has been shown that the manner in which DNA is folded within each cell affects how genes are expressed.

“There are more than three billion base pairs in the human genome, and a change in just one of these can cause a problem. As a model we’ve been looking at the human alpha globin gene cluster to understand how variants in genes and their regulatory elements may cause human genetic disease,” said Prof Jim Hughes, associate professor of Genome Biology at Oxford University.

Using CRISPR, UK scientists edit DNA of human embryos

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Source: BBC

Tesla and AMD developing AI chip for self-driving cars

Tesla has partnered with AMD to develop a dedicated chip that will handle autonomous driving tasks in its cars. Tesla's Autopilot programme is currently headed by former AMD chip architect Jim Keller, and it is said that more than 50 people are working on the initiative under his leadership.

Source: CNBC

Synthetic muscle developed that can lift 1,000 times its own weight

Scientists have used a 3D printing technique to create an artificial muscle that can lift 1,000 times its own weight. "It can push, pull, bend, twist, and lift weight. It's the closest artificial material equivalent we have to a natural muscle," said Dr Aslan Miriyev, from the Creative Machines lab.

Source: Telegraph

Head of AI at Google criticises "AI apocalypse" scaremongering

John Giannandrea, the senior vice president of engineering at Google, has condemned AI scaremongering, promoted by people like Elon Musk ."I just object to the hype and the sort of sound bites that some people have been making," said Giannandrea."I am definitely not worried about the AI apocalypse."

Source: CNBC

Scientists engineer antibody that attacks 99% of HIV strains

Scientists have engineered an antibody that attacks 99% of HIV strains and is built to attack three critical parts of the virus, which makes it harder for the HIV virus to resist its effects. The International Aids Society said it was an "exciting breakthrough". Human trials will begin in 2018.

Source: BBC

Facebook has a plan to stop fake news from influencing elections

Mark Zuckerberg has outlined nine steps that Facebook will take to "protect election integrity". “I care deeply about the democratic process and protecting its integrity," he said during a live broadcast on his Facebook page. "I don’t want anyone to use our tools to undermine our democracy.”