With a number of semi-professional leagues popping up around the world, drone racing has teetered on the edge of mainstream sport for a little while now. And a new broadcast deal signed between the International Drone Racing Association (IDRA) and ESPN certainly won't do its popularity any harm, with a series of cashed-up race events to be showcased on the network later in the year.
Over the past year or so, drone racing has quickly gone from an underground activity drawing DIYers to empty carparks and abandoned warehouses to something approaching a professional sport. Last month's US$1 million World Drone Prix in Dubai saw an English teenager take home $250,000, seriously raising the stakes from preceding events like last year's US National Championship, which offered $25,000 in cash prizes.
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And the sport is showing no signs of slowing down. ESPN's new multi-year, international distribution deal will bring a number of races to television screens this year, beginning with the 2016 US National Drone Racing Championships on Governors Island, New York City, between August 5 and 7.
This will be followed by the 2016 World Drone Racing Championships in October, which will attract pilots from more than 30 countries to the Kualoa Ranch private nature reserve in Hawaii for a share of $200,000 in cash prizes. Both events will be streamed live on ESPN3, and then packaged into one hour specials to be shown on the ESPN network thereafter.
The rising popularity of drone racing is in large part due to the first-person viewing experience. Virtual reality goggles worn by the pilots stream vision from the drone's nose-mounted camera, giving racers the sensation that they themselves are flying as their aircraft zip through pylons, trees and other racecourse obstacles. Considering that this immersive, real-time perspective can be shared with spectators viewing on screens or goggles of their own, it's easy to see why the sport is spreading like wildfire.
"Drone racing gives anyone the ability to fly like a superhero," says Dr. Scot Refsland, Chairman of the IDRA. "Because everyone can experience the thrill of racing as if they were sitting in the drone cockpit, the sport is skyrocketing. To go from a first ever, US national drone race to partnering with ESPN for international distribution in eight months is truly a sign of great things ahead."
You can check out a promo for the 2016 U S National Drone Racing Championships below.