DRONES DESCEND ON GOVERNORS ISLAND
You can usually hear a drone race before you can actually see it. Stepping onto Governors Island on the first weekend of August, after a 10-minute ferry ride from Manhattan, you could hear the buzzing of hundreds of drones as if the island had been overtaken by loud, robotic bugs flying around an obstacle course.
The U.S. National Drone Racing Championships, which were held on the island and shown on ESPN3 for the first time, was just the next step of a nascent sport on the verge of hitting the mainstream. Over the past two years, what was a popular pastime for hobbyists has led to the formation of a handful of national leagues, hundreds of local leagues and thousands of racers trying to establish themselves.
"When you have two cars racing, you get NASCAR," said Dr. Scot Refsland, the co-founder and chairman of the Drone Sports Association (DSA). "And as soon as you have two drones that go really fast, you got yourself a drone race. It's the fastest-growing sport."
The 150 pilots who raced at the U.S. National Drone Championships this past weekend in New York qualified from a pool of over 1,400 from around the country, which speaks to the growth of the sport. In October, the first World Drone Championships will be held in Hawaii, and by next year pilots will be in a position to become professionals and possibly make enough money to become full-time pro drone racers.
"We're all amateurs at the moment," Refsland said. "We're not in an environment where we can support a pro racing system right now, so there are no professionals. But by January each one of our races will be professional races. This is the beginning stages of the sport."
Several companies -- such as AIG, Ernst & Young, Vizio, Ecko and GoPro, which sponsored the race -- have taken notice of the emerging sport. For many executives who are on the fence about investing in the sport, the deciding factor, according to Refsland, is trying on the first-person-view (FPV) goggles. The special goggles make pilots and fans feel as if they are sitting in the cockpit of the drones as they zoom around.
"You're no longer sitting here when you put on the goggles," Refsland said. "When you put on the goggles, you're going 80 miles per hour at 100 feet and wondering if you're going to crash. When you pull off the goggles, people are sweating and twitching because the adrenaline rush is like you're up there. That's what virtual reality is all about, and that's what drone racing is all about."