When Nicholas Horbaczewski founded the Drone Racing League (DRL) out of New York in 2015, he was faced with much skepticism. Many believed that drone racing was just a fad for backyard hobbyists. But with an MBA in Business from Harvard and the experience of helping Tough Mudder become a mainstream extreme sport, Nicholas knew drone racing would become more than just a fad. At the time, drone races were held in outdoor fields with homemade obstacle courses. Nicholas took a DIY hobby, brought it indoors, and created an international sport that is valued at over $237 million and growing.
To build the DRL, Nicholas had to develop custom courses and drones. The races are held in major stadiums, arenas, and museums around the world. Each course presents intricate illuminated obstacles, reminiscent of a race track from the classic movie TRON. Teams pilot identical in-house built drones in FPV (First Person View). DRL’s drones are the Racer 2, 3, 4, and X and can reach speeds of 90 mph. All of the action, including the pilot’s headset FPV, is streamed for audiences through Twitter and on major sports broadcasting networks like ESPN and Fox Sports.
DRL also developed a simulator program that allows drone pilots to fly drones through a course without having to leave their homes. During the height of the COVID-19 quarantine, this meant that DRL was able to continue their season virtually. And as Nicholas proudly points out, DRL is first and foremost a technology company trying to push the boundaries of how drones are built and used. To help further drone technology, DRL launched the Artificial Intelligence Robotic Racing (AIRR) Circuit. As explained on DRL’s website, AIRR “is a racing series, where DRL is enabling teams of technologists, engineers and drone enthusiasts to develop artificial intelligence to race high-speed drones through unique tracks without any human intervention.”
AIRR invites university teams to develop a fully autonomous drone capable of racing through a complex course. Up for grabs is a $1 million contract with Lockheed Martin and the chance to compete against a piloted drone for an additional $250K. Drones capable of racing autonomously go far beyond entertainment, they can help determine the safety parameters needed for drones to be used in shared airspace. Constantly pushing the boundaries of drone possibilities, DRL has completed 5 rounds of investor funding bringing in nearly $50 million. In September 2021, DRL announced that its latest investor will continue the league’s boundary pushing ideas.
In DRL’s largest partnership ever, the league is merging with blockchain cryptocurrency company Algorand. The deal is reportedly worth close to $100 million and will introduce crypto-based ticketing and merchandising along with NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens). “DRL will leverage Algorand’s technology to create immersive in-game experiences and introduce millions of technology enthusiasts to the possibilities that blockchain can bring to racing and to sports as we know them today,” said Steve Kokinos, CEO of Algorand. Just as how drone popularity has increased in the wake of COVID 19, the cryptocurrency market has exploded. And what some are calling just another fad, NFTs are also becoming huge now. Nicholas proved that drone racing was much more than a passing trend. By merging DRL with Algorand, Nicholas may prove that cryptocurrency and NFTs are more than a post-pandemic trend.