Kicking Off the 2017 FPV Racing Season: An Interview with Drone Racing League CEO and Founder Nicholas Horbaczewski
BY Zacc Dukowitz20 June 2017
The Drone Racing League has seen meteoric success since the launch of its 2016 season.
Last week they announced a $20 million Series B funding round, along with new partnerships with Amazon Prime Video, Swatch, and Allianz. They also shared the news that their 2017 season will be broadcast in 75 countries this year, up from 40 last year.
We were excited to have the opportunity to speak with DRL CEO and founder Nicholas Horbaczewski about DRL’s amazing success and the 2017 season, which starts today.
Read on to learn about how DRL was first started, the incredible technology that makes FPV racing possible, and the future of drone racing.
Want to tune in to the 2017 season? Races will be played live on ESPN every Tuesday and Thursday at 8pm EST starting tonight—learn more about ways to watch here.
UAV Coach: The Drone Racing League has seen insane growth in a very short period of time. Can you tell us the story of how the company was created, and how you’ve achieved so much success?
Nicholas Horbaczewski: The story really begins with drone racing itself.
Drone racing as a sport and a hobby has been around for five or six years. It started in places like Australia and France, where people were first building high speed quadcopter drones and putting an FPV camera on them. People were exchanging information on message boards, meeting up in parking lots to have these underground amateur races, and by the time I came across it in early 2015 drone racing had spread around the world as a global underground hobby.
I was first exposed to FPV racing with a group of people who fly in the New York area. I was out in a field in Long Island watching them race, and I just thought it was incredible. It reminded me of science fiction and video games, and I thought it had the potential to become a major mainstream sport.
I began an investigation into why even though drone racing had been around for several years, and had clearly gained a global following, it hadn’t gained more ground as a mainstream spectator sport. And that initial research is really the origin of the Drone Racing League, which was in the middle of 2015.
What we discovered as we began the journey of trying to build DRL into what it is today was that the main roadblock was technology. The drones being raced at that time used consumer, off-the-shelf tech that was simply not reliable or robust enough to really elevate drone racing to the level of a true sport.
So we had to build all of that technology, and really figure out what was needed to make FPV racing happen.
We launched publicly in January of 2016, and showed the potential of what drone racing could be. We had our first season in 2016, and off we went.
UAV Coach: Describe what the Drone Racing League does in one short sentence.
Nicholas Horbaczewski: We are the global professional circuit for drone racing.
UAV Coach: How did you first get involved in the drone industry?
Nicholas Horbaczewski: Prior to DRL, I was the Chief Revenue Officer at Tough Mudder, the mud run series. But before that I was the Chief Information Officer at a company that sells consumer products to the law enforcement and military space.
We were the first to begin selling portable quadcopter drones to law enforcement and the military for various reconnaissance purposes, and this was long before you saw drones on the shelves and heard people talking about them. We sold hundreds of thousands of different products, but I still remember the glowing feedback we got from everyone about how powerful drones were as tools.
So drones have always been on my radar, and it didn’t shock me when I saw them explode onto the consumer scene, and people adopt them with such passion.
But I do have some of the same challenges other people have on the consumer side. Drones are really cool, but if you’re not using them as a flying camera, what is the purpose of having a drone?
That’s one of the things I love about FPV racing. Flying is the purpose—you fly the drone for the pure enjoyment of it.
UAV Coach: How can people reading get more involved in drone racing? Do you have to spend a bunch of money just to try it out?
Nicholas Horbaczewski: Here is what I’d recommend for people who want to get involved with racing drones. The first step is to watch DRL’s 2017 season on TV, which will give you a sense of how incredible drone racing can be. The 2017 season starts tonight at 8pm EST on ESPN, so you can tune in and learn more there.
In addition to racing, we spend a lot of time educating people on equipment, techniques, and different aspects that make drone racing challenging.
Once you’ve seen drone racing, the second step for getting involved is learning how to fly. One of the challenges with drone racing is that it’s a relatively high skill activity, with a steep learning curve. For most people, the first thing that happens after buying a drone is that you crash.
To address this problem, we’ve built a brand new simulator called DRL High Voltage, which will take you through the basics, all the way from having never flown and up (the simulator is available on Steam).
The simulator will get you reasonably confident with flying a drone, and that’s really important because it allows you to focus on actually flying when you first pick up a drone, instead of figuring out how to fix it when you crash.
The third step is to get a real drone. We have a drone coming out in the next few months that we created with our partner Nikko that’s a durable remote control drone. It’s a toy and meant to be a starter drone, but it’s real FPV flight. It comes with goggles and a controller, and we think it’s the best drone on the market for learning how to fly.
Once you’ve gone through that learning curve—watch it, simulate it, actually do it—from there, there’s a whole world of amateur drone racing that you can get into. You can find a local community and go out to fields and start racing with a performance craft.
UAV Coach: How close to real life is the simulator?
Nicholas Horbaczewski: The simulator is a lot of fun and like a video game, but you can also use it to learn how to fly.
Actually, you can even use it to try out for DRL and get a pro spot and contract. Last year we ran a tryout for the 2017 season with the simulator, and that’s how one of the pilots competing this year won his spot.
Even if you don’t make it all that way, when you’re done with the time you’ve put into it you’ve developed a really useful skill, and you can walk outside and put that skill to use flying your drone. It’s hard to think of another video game that’s so immediately applicable to the real world beyond the screen.
UAV Coach: DRL’s 2017 season is kicking off today. What are you most excited about this season?
Nicholas Horbaczewski: The races you’ll see this season take place all over the world—in the U.S., in London, in Munich. We’re racing our new, dramatically improved drone the Racer 3, which just completely ups the level of play and allows us to do racing on a scale we’ve never done before.
We’re also introducing a number of new partners like Amazon Prime Video, Swatch, and Allianz.
But for me, what I’m most excited about is the racing.
It is just epic, white knuckle, photo finish racing. We have the 16 best pilots in the world battling across six enormous, elaborate race tracks using ultra high performance drones.
It’s just wild. I find the racing gripping. I’ve been at all these races, and I’ll still watch them again on TV because it’s just great sport.
UAV Coach: Where do you see drone racing going in the next five to ten years?
Nicholas Horbaczewski: Often when people ask me about drone racing they’ll analogize it to another sport. They’ll compare it to Formula 1 or UFC or eSports, but one of the things that gives me a lot of passion for what we’re doing is that we are trying to build a new, unique sports entertainment ecosystem.
What I think you’ll see in the future is that we will benefit from the fact that we’re not a traditional sport, which creates restrictions on what you can do.
So we don’t try to put too fine a point on what the future is going to look like. Our vision is to build a major sport around the world of drone racing, and the world of drone racing keeps evolving. And that’s what makes it fun, and it’s also what our fans love.
We’re going to stay incredibly innovative. Every season you’ll see us improving and changing the technology, and the scale on which we do the races. We are extremely open minded about continuing to evolve the sport. It doesn’t need to look exactly like it does today forever in the future.
We change the technology on the drones between every single race, and every time we change the tech it creates possibilities we’ve never seen before.
UAV Coach: Can you give us some examples of advances in technology that have pushed drone racing forward and opened up new possibilities?
Nicholas Horbaczewski: DRL is first and foremost a technology company. We sat out to build a race league, and discovered the tech didn’t exist for it, so we began building our own tech, and we remain very focused on the development of novel technology.
On our new Racer 3, the improvements to the onboard avionics allow it to fly with incredible precision, and improvements to things like ESC technology allow us to drive more power through the power train more reliably.
A lot of our innovation at DRL is around radio systems. We just held a drone race at Alexander Palace with more than 2,000 people in the building. We raced six drones through a complex three dimensional space, with multiple rooms where the drones were a kilometer away from the pilots. To do that on a radio system is a massive accomplishment.
People take this for granted now, but in the recent past drone racing was limited to the shadows because if you put too many people near the radios it really interfered, and could take down the entire system.
This has been a step-by-step process for us, where we’ve gone from barely reliable radio systems with a limited range to bullet proof systems that allow us to have thousands of people in the audience, with six drones racing at once on tracks that are massive in size.
UAV Coach: One tech-related issue that comes up a lot with drones is battery life. Are you doing any work at DRL to extend battery life?
Nicholas Horbaczewski: Battery life is an issue across the drone world.
When we moved from the Racer 2 to the Racer 3 we moved to an entirely custom-designed battery, which gave us significantly more flight time. We’ve managed to find improvements, but those improvements fit within the bounds of existing battery technology. We’re being smarter about power extensions on board, and smarter about design.
But what people are really looking for is a step change—something that will double battery life. We don’t know where that’s going to come from, but we certainly think there’s more optimization to do in the racing world within the existing Lipo tech.
UAV Coach: We’ve seen a lot of changes in the drone industry recently, with companies like Parrot, Autel, and GoPro going through massive layoffs, and construction and FPV racing emerging as solid verticals in the market. Can you share your thoughts on the future of the industry, as well as where you think we might be headed regarding regulations?
Nicholas Horbaczewski: I think the drone world is evolving. A lot of my feelings about the consumer market is related to what I said a little bit ago—drones are very cool, and whenever we talk about drones people crowd around. Right now in New York there’s an exhibit on display at the Intrepid Museum on drones, and it’s drawing huge crowds.
So the fundamental interest is there. But I think what we’re catching up to now as an industry is that fundamental interest needs to translate to some sort of purpose. I think racing is just one example of a purpose. Racing drones isn’t about a type of drone, or a type of technology. It’s a description of a use of drones.
With some of the recent layoffs we’ve seen, it seems like there was a little too much of just putting a drone out there and saying to consumers: here’s a drone. There wasn’t a lot of effort made to say what the drone should be used for, beyond it just being a flying camera.
So I think we need to be talking about drones more in that context going forward—really asking, what is the use of each particular drone for a consumer?
I think what we do with racing drones is great, but there’s a lot more that can be done, and I think we’ll see consumers finding more and more applications.
Regarding regulations, we aren’t so impacted by the regulatory environment. We have a great relationship with the FAA and with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, as well as international agencies like the CAA (which is the equivalent of the FAA in the U.K.).
But I think drone regulations are a little bit of a red herring when it comes to looking at the future of the drone industry. I think regulations have basically moved in the right direction, and that we’ll continue to see them move in the right direction. These are thoughtful, smart people that want to see progress continue in a safe way.
Don’t forget to tune in tonight for the first race of the season in Miami, FL.
Here are some pictures of the course, to whet your appetite. We can’t wait!