Drone Racing Is Now on ESPN. Will People Watch?

rones are going mainstream: The Federal Aviation Administration anticipates that by the end of 2016, people will own more than 2.5 million in the United States alone. But competitive drone-ing is newer still, and televised drone sports are practically uncharted territory, at least in the U.S. That will change Thursday night when the first of a 10-episode season featuring the Drone Racing League airs on ESPN2 at 11 p.m. Eastern.

“This is an incredibly exciting day for DRL,” the league’s CEO, Nicholas Horbaczewski, said in a press release.

But will it be exciting for viewers? After all, this isn’t the first time competitive drone operation will be on TV, and the reviews of a previous effort were not positive. In February, the BBC launched a children’s show called Airmageddon that showed kids flying drones around obstacle courses. My colleague Justin Peters scoped out the show and reflected thusly:

I was not entertained by Airmageddon. The drones go really slow, and—at least in the episode I watched—there aren’t nearly enough crashes. The youthful drone pilots weren’t very good, and the obstacles were not very exciting. The Guardian’s [Joel] Golby characterized Airmageddon’s version of suspense as “picking up magnets and putting them down inside a loop of LED lighting arranged artlessly on a concrete floor.” That said, the show is for kids. I’m trying to put myself into a kid’s shoes right now—it’s hard, my feet are too big—and if I were 12 years old in 2016, I would probably think that Airmageddon was sort of cool.

The DRL drones do go faster—more than 80 mph, but the idea is essentially the same. “DRL races feature six pilots each flying a custom designed, hand built and identical DRL drone, the DRL Racer 2, through complex, thematic, three-dimensional racecourses that have been compared to a real life video game,” the press release said.


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