The Sport of the Future Is Here With the Drone Racing League

An "elite pilot" of the Drone Racing League poses with his electronic chariot.EXPAND
An "elite pilot" of the Drone Racing League poses with his electronic chariot.
Courtesy of DRL

Remember when you spent six hours a day playing videogames and your mom came barging into the room screaming, “How are you going to get into a good college and get a decent-paying job and have a life outside this house if you don't get off those damn videogames?!”

You can officially tell your mom she don't know jack.

“We say drone racing is like a real-life videogame,” says Nicholas Horbaczewski, CEO and founder of the new Drone Racing League (DRL). He and his elite regime of international pilots held the DRL's first official race at SunLife Stadium last month. The race will air to the public next month.

Horbaczewski believes drone racing to be “the sport of the future,” and he might be right. “We take the magic of videogames and bring them to life.”

Drones aren't just for surveillance and dropping bombs. They're actually extremely popular machines for professionals and hobbyists alike. You probably have a friend who flies one, or at least a friend of a friend, if you look hard enough. Photographers get into the emerging technology as a means to capture breathtaking pictures, but many of them soon develop a taste for the race.

That's how it went for Rafael Baiva, a Brazilian DRL pilot with a long history of adrenaline addiction. He has always been into motocross, skateboarding, surfing, and other extreme sports, but since he discovered drone racing about eight months ago, he hasn't been able to stop.

A Drone Racing League pilot is deep in the thick of it, using a live-feed headset to drive his drone.
A Drone Racing League pilot is deep in the thick of it, using a live-feed headset to drive his drone.
Courtesy of DRL

“You're working with your mind, so it's sometimes even harder,” Baiva says. “They're really small, but they're really powerful. It feels like you're riding a motocross bike because every time you throttle, you get that response — but the good thing is, when you crash, you don't hurt yourself.”

Enthusiasts like Baiva have been holding their own unofficial races around the world for years, but it's never been regulated. The constraints of the technology left them competing in open-air parks, constantly worrying that someone might wander into the line of fire and get hurt. Horbaczewski is hoping the DRL can change that.

“We need to introduce the world to drone racing,” he says. “We need to explain to them what it is, create events that let people follow the races, get into it, let people get excited about the pilots, and become fans.”

The DRL upped the ante big time on the tech side. These pilots usually build their own drones. They have to know how to build them; because the machines crash so often, it would be impossible to race regularly if the pilots couldn't fix their drones themselves. That doesn't ensure an even playing field, though, so the DRL has provided top-level drones with regulated features, making sure each racer is getting by on nothing but his or her abilities.

The new league also changed the game as far as courses are concerned. Racers are accustomed to feeding a live standard-def broadcast image from a drone's camera via a headset fixed with antennae, but they had to stay in open-air courses or else lose the signal. For the safety of everyone involved — and to avoid strict government regulations — the DRL creates courses in large places (like an empty Sun Life Stadium). Inside, they run drones through high-stakes obstacle courses, weaving them in and out of halls and stairways, rooms and stadium seating to reach the goal. The antennae are placed throughout the course instead of on headsets, so the signal is never lost even as drones travel between thick concrete walls.

After their race in Miami, Horbaczewski says, the next stop is an abandoned mall in Los Angeles. “You can really do it anywhere. We want to have a huge variety of venues. It's fun, it's exciting, it's great to watch, and with more and more people flying drones, it's really cool to see what these elite pilots can do.”

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So far, the pilots are keeping their day jobs. Horbaczewski hopes the sport will grow in this first season so it generates a loyal fan base and lucrative sponsorship deals.

Still, you can't beat trips around the globe to compete against the toughest in the world. For racers like Baiva, it's a dream come true, money or no. “This is another opportunity for me to have more experience,” he says. “I got to meet all of these guys. This event is amazing. What these guys are doing, it's never been done before.”

The winner of the first race in Miami can't yet be announced — that would be cheating. You have to watch the action-packed edited video of the race to enjoy that thrill. The season kicks off with the airing of the Miami race February 22 and continues throughout the year until the big championship showdown.

It's a lot of fun to watch these pilots do their thing — and it's not an easy task to pilot yourself. I had a chance to test a drone. I felt drunk just trying to get all four corners off the ground. There was a kid there who couldn't have been much older than 9, and his dad was one of the pilots. The kid was playing a simulator and whooping everyone else's ass.

It goes to show that you don't have to be a genius engineer to be a great drone pilot. You just have to know your way around a videogame controller.

“The good thing about [the DRL is] they're promoting and launching the sport,” Baiva says. “They're showing that anyone can do it and showing safety first to keep this sport growing. It's so amazing — everyone should do it.”

Drone Racing League
Airs February 22 (channel to be determined). Visit

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Sun Life Stadium

2269 NW 199th St.
Miami Gardens, FL 33056


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