If drone racing is the sport of the future, how will we watch it?
There has been a growing excitement around the prospect of a new sporting league where competitors race that very futuristic sounding vehicle, a drone. By drone they mean small remote controlled quadcopters, incredibly agile little aircraft that can move at speeds of over 100 miles and hour. Unlike most racing sports — cars, horses, dog sleds — there is no human onboard the drone. The pilots are all standing about with goggles on, steering based on a live video feed from a camera on the drone’s nose. It’s called FPV racing, a term borrowed from the world of video games, meaning first person view.
But while the pilots don’t have much choice about which view to use, the audience does. So what is the best way to view the race? So far most videos do a mix of first and third person. Sometimes you’re watching from the perspective of the drone, zipping through turns and blasting along straightaways. Other times you’re watching from the sidelines as the drones whizz by. Here’s one completely from an FPV view.
Putting the audience into the same perspective as the driver is neat, but of course it means they don’t have any sense of how near or far the other competitors are. That, and the loops and rolls many drones do send the entire universe end over end, a visual that can quickly become nauseating to the casual viewer. Viewed from the sidelines, however, drones are not nearly as big and colorful as race cars. They often look like little more than black specks, hard to pick out against a background at high speed.
So what’s the solution? Drone Racing League garnered a lot of attention recently with a sizzle reel it put together for it’s debut. One nice touch was that they covered each drone in colorful LED lights and matching rotors, so that they pop against the background, and it’s much easier to tell them apart. They also introduced a lot of crazy atmospheric elements — Drones crashing through glass lightbulbs! Drones rising through thick fog! Drones chopping up innocent plants! — which work well in an edited montage, but might not pan out in an actual race.
The most exciting footage from any drone race is when two quadcopters are right on each other’s tails, swapping back and forth between leader and follower, and even bumping each other — trading paint in NASCAR parlance. If drone racing leagues decide that airing the sport live is less important than creating a compelling narrative of the race, they might stick with these tight follow shots, essentially giving the audience the perspective of whomever is not in first.
That trick worked well in the one clip of a "race" released by DRL so far. But as you can see from that clip, it’s really hard to tell where the drones are in space, who’s in which position, and how they are passing one another. A true sport requires more than a manufactured feeling of excitement from bombastic music, fast cuts between drones and pilots, and a staged slow motion crash at the end.
This year will see a number of competing leagues try to bring drone racing to the mainstream. Having seen it live, I can attest it works as entertainment in person. But nothing about this clip, or others I have seen from various leagues, convinces me anyone has figured out a way to turn live drone racing into a compelling spectator sport for people watching from the comfort of their homes.
This post first appeared on The Verge.