A Video Game IRL: Drone Racing League Aims To Be NASCAR In The Air : All Tech Considered Goggles and onboard cameras put pilots and spectators in the cockpit as the drones race at high speeds through crazy courses. The Drone Racing League's first season kicks off next month in Miami.
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A Video Game IRL: Drone Racing League Aims To Be NASCAR In The Air

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A Video Game IRL: Drone Racing League Aims To Be NASCAR In The Air

A Video Game IRL: Drone Racing League Aims To Be NASCAR In The Air

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/464714071/465038689" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Drone racing is the next NASCAR. At least that's what Nick Horbaczewski really wants you to believe. He's the CEO of the Drone Racing League, and he's lined up millions in venture capital to bring his vision to reality. He joins me now from our studios in New York. Hey, Nick, welcome to the show.

NICK HORBACZEWSKI: Thanks so much.

MARTIN: Describe what a drone race looks like.

HORBACZEWSKI: To understand drone racing, the first thing to understand is these are small, quadcopter drones. And they go very, very fast.

MARTIN: These are, like, the little hobbyist remote-controlled vehicles.

HORBACZEWSKI: So the same concept, yeah, except ours are sort of sleek, carbon fiber. And they go, you know, north of 80 miles an hour.

MARTIN: Wow, OK.

HORBACZEWSKI: So these are serious pieces of equipment. And they have a little camera on them that feeds a video signal back to the pilots. So the pilots are wearing these goggles that see what the drone sees, basically.

MARTIN: So this is really happening. It's not just a game that's projected on a screen. This is in real life, these little drones race each other in a real environment.

HORBACZEWSKI: That's correct. The first event of the 2016 season is at Miami Dolphins' stadium, and the course wraps around the bowl, through the concourses, down through the people-movers. These are actual drones flying through a real space.

MARTIN: It looks like they go through obstacles or rings or there's something in their path.

HORBACZEWSKI: So we have these gates that they fly through that we light up in bright lights so that they can see them. And the audience can see them. And the drones have to pass through them and follow a particular path through the space.

MARTIN: It is crazy to watch this, though, because on the one hand, it's weird. And you're wrapping your head around just what's happening. But it also kind of made me a little bit, like, motion sick.

HORBACZEWSKI: It's like sitting in the cockpit of a drone going 80 miles an hour through a hallway. Like, that - if you were actually doing it, you'd probably be experiencing a lot too. And, you know, this thing goes up in the air and takes a flip. And your stomach drops a little bit because your mind is thinking, I'm that drone. I'm going that fast.

MARTIN: You're not broadcasting these races live, right?

HORBACZEWSKI: Not yet. So we've started by putting on races and filming them and then releasing that content online. And we're going to work our way towards both live events and live broadcasts.

MARTIN: So right now they're produced. You edit the races down and produce a race that people can view, right?

HORBACZEWSKI: We produce tons of content. If you're really into the technology, you might watch the races and then want to know how the drones work, then get an interview with the pit crew. If you're really into the racing, you watch the racing and then want to hear the pilot's strategy. And you want to hear about what's next - you know, the next course is going to look like.

MARTIN: Wait. There's a pit crew?

HORBACZEWSKI: Yeah, there's a big pit crew. So here at the Drone Racing League, we design and build all of the drones that are used in our events. So we're bringing over a hundred drones to an event. So it's a sizeable team of drone engineers and fleet managers that keep all those drones in pristine working order.

MARTIN: Who do you want to watch? Who are going to be the big mega-fans of drone racing, do you think?

HORBACZEWSKI: Well, what's interesting is, you know, we've launched some of the content over the last few days. And we've been surprised. You know, a lot of it is what you'd expect - sort of millennials who like interesting, fast-paced content - you know, the digital and, you know, love drones and technology. But there's also a huge interest from race fans - so traditional racing fans, people who love car races and speed sports, motorcycle racing. And they love the speed. They love the thrill. They love the crashes. And this brings all those things together.

MARTIN: There are crashes?

HORBACZEWSKI: Oh, lots of crashes - crashing is part of the sport of drone races. You're flying very high-speed craft through narrow spaces. And, you know, pilots will occasionally miss a turn. And they hit a wall, and these drones disintegrate because they're flying so fast and they have so much energy. But it's part of the fun. You know, it's a drone. We - when that happens, we get a new drone. And pilots get a new one in the next race.

MARTIN: And no one gets hurt.

HORBACZEWSKI: And no one gets hurt.

MARTIN: Nick Horbaczewski is CEO of the Drone Racing League. The first race of the inaugural season will take place in Miami next month. Hey, Nick, thanks for talking with us.

HORBACZEWSKI: Thank you so much.

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