By Carlo Versano
The burgeoning sport of drone racing is about to go autonomous. The professional Drone Racing League is preparing to launch a circuit for A.I. drones to compete against one another ー and, eventually, against human-controlled drones.
Nicholas Horbaczewski, the founder and CEO of the DRL, previewed the new circuit in an interview on Cheddar Wednesday. To recruit the best and brightest in drone engineering, DRL has launched the Alpha Pilot Challenge, an open competition to find "world-class experts in artificial intelligence" to program the world's fastest autonomous drones that will "accelerate the pace of innovation," Horbaczewski said.
It's the latest tech/sports crossover event in a rapidly-growing segment of esports that is still relatively unknown in the U.S. But it's not just for hobbyists, Horbaczewski said. The prize pool in the competition is $2 million, and includes support from Lockheed Martin ($LMT).
Currently, DRL consists of 18 pilots operating drones that can hit top speeds of more than 80 mph across seven circuits around the world ー unique venues that have include an abandoned shopping mall, Las Vegas hotel, and amusement park. Horbaczewski, who was previously an executive at endurance-event series, Tough Mudder, said the DRL community is similarly passionate to Mudders. "People live for this," he said.
Whether that passion will translate when there are no humans making the decisions is an open question. Horbaczewski said the plan is to eventually take the fastest human-piloted drone and pit it against the fastest autonomous drone. "We'll see how far A.I. is from matching human ability," he said.
Because the DRL races all occur on closed courses with professional pilots, the league has been able to grow, immune to the evolving regulations in the nascent drone space ー in the same way Formula One drivers are exempt from seatbelt rules. But Horbaczewski said he's noticed the regulatory environment around drones is rapidly improving from where it was three years ago, when DRL launched amid widespread concerns over drone safety and privacy issues.
Now, the league is another arm of a budding esports industry, complete with non-endemic sponsors like Lockheed, licensing agreements, and media deals ー and a rabid fan base, to boot.
For full interview click here.