How You — Yes, You — Can Become a Professional Drone Racer

Thanks to a downloadable online simulator, the Drone Racing League has an extremely low barrier to entry

DRL Racer4 Drone from the Drone Racing League
The DRL Racer4 on a podium. (Drone Racing League)
By Evan Bleier / August 9, 2019 5:49 am

While the speeds professional drone racers hit with their tiny, remote-controlled projectiles are high, the barriers to joining their ranks are actually quite low. At least that’s the case with the Drone Racing League, a pro league for FPV (first-person view) drone pilots which was founded in 2015 and now operates all over the world.

Recognizing that many prospective drone pilots won’t necessarily have the know-how or resources to buy a drone and hone their skills, the DRL offers a downloadable FPV simulator that lets users experience what it’s like to fly a racing drone from a first-person view — the same perspective the pros use. (You’ll also need a special remote control to get started, it bears noting.)

Users virtually navigate the same courses where previous DRL events have been held, with the intention being that if you’re skilled enough, you can eventually graduate to flying a DRL racing drone in real life. DRL occasionally hosts online tournaments, and the winner getting a shot — and a contract — to compete on the mile-long tracks of the pro circuit.

The start of the DRL Allianz World Championship Season. (DRL)

“Because we’ve built this custom simulator to be so accurate to real life, it means anyone in the world can try out to be a drone pilot,” DRL founder and CEO Nicholas Horbaczewski tells InsideHook. “The person who wins really doesn’t have to have any prior experience with drones, and that’s pretty unique. It’s hard to think of another sport where you could go from a simulated environment to the real sport and compete at the very highest level of competition. It creates really cool opportunities for people to engage with the sport and then go on and fly.”

If all that talk of simulators makes the DRL sound boring, trust us, it’s not.

Harvard graduate Horbaczewski first got the idea for starting the DRL after drone racing videos began to go viral at the end of 2014. He began doing background research into how feasible it would be to pull it off.

“We started looking into it and it turned out that the real barrier to doing it was the technology,” Horbaczewski says. “The technology you needed to do what we’re doing today didn’t exist. You couldn’t just go out and buy the radios or the drones you needed to do it. So we had to create all of that from scratch. Really, we started as a technology company. And we’re still a technology company at our core today.”

During the 2019 DRL Allianz World Championship Season, which kicks off this Sunday on NBC and Twitter at 2 p.m. with a race held at Hard Rock Stadium outside Miami, all 12 racers will be piloting an identical version of the league’s fourth custom model, the made-in-the-USA DRL Racer4.

And there’s a good reason why DRL competitors all have to share the league’s 600-deep fleet: “Our goal is to find the greatest drone racer on the planet every year,” Horbaczewski says. “And one of the ways we do that is by having an absolute level playing field. All the drones are identical. We work very hard to make sure they’re the same. That means when you’re watching the pilots fly and someone wins a race, you know that was the best pilot, not necessarily the best drone.”

DRL Racer4 Drone from the Drone Racing League
The DRL Racer4 (Drone Racing League)

Capable of going from 0-90 miles per hour in under a second and generating more than 16 pounds of thrust via its power system, the hand-made DRL Racer4 is made of hard-edged carbon-fiber and features modular construction and plug-and-play electronics, which means technicians can typically repair one within 15 minutes.

“Our technology has evolved an incredible amount over the last four years,” Horbaczewski says. “I think the drones we were using for the 2016 season … they were smaller, they were slower and you could see all the components on them. The Racer4 now is this incredible piece of engineering with a fully integrated design. It goes so fast. Going forward you’ll see bigger courses and bigger, faster drones, because we can push the barrier a little further each time.”

Another way the DRL will expanding boundaries this season is by selling a version of its exclusive FPV drone on the consumer market. A street-ready version of the Racer4, the DRL Racer4 Street, is available for preorder on Kickstarter for $599 and comes with complimentary access to our the DRL simulator.

“The DRL Racer4 Street is made for drone enthusiasts and aspiring pilots who love speed, flight and immersive FPV views,” Horbaczewski says. “After many requests from fans to purchase our previous drone model, we made sure to answer the demand with the Racer4 Street. It has the same power config used in our series and a slim, agile rig that surges with raw power and rockets at full throttle. Our tech team works tirelessly to push the boundaries around our proprietary drone technology and create the fastest, most agile and competitive racing drones possible.”

DRL Allianz World Championship Season
The start of the DRL Allianz World Championship Season. (DRL)

That diligent work allows DRL to not only push the boundaries of the drones themselves, but of the sport as a whole.

“One of the things I love about drone racing is we get to evolve the sport every year,” Horbaczewski says. “The rules are different, the course is different. Our guiding light is to always think of everything that was in your favorite racing video game growing up. We want to bring that to the sport. Real-life Mario Kart, Wipe Out or F-Zero. And we want to bring all that. We’re constantly going to evolve so it won’t look the same as it did last year. We have the freedom to do that and our fans love the change.”

Maybe next year, the difference in the DRL is that you’ll be flying in it.