In some not too distant future, two-time NBA champion Chris Bosh, having been named Dean of the Drone Racing Academy, will stand by as the Drone Racing League’s first live, primetime race is televised nationally. After the race, over in what feels like a blink, Bosh might congratulate the winning pilot and work alongside them to bring the best lessons of the race — aerodynamics, batteries and propellers, crashing and starting over — into the league’s STEM-focused learning component for kids.
The race in question is this Sunday, and the rest of it has already happened. Not too distant future, remember?
Founded in 2015 and launched publicly a year later, the Drone Racing League is a first of its kind amalgamation of tech, professional sports, and entertainment. As of 2020, the DRL has held 38 events in 22 cities around the world, racing in venues as varied as Alexandra Palace in London and as large as Chase Field in Phoenix. While the league has seen rapid growth since its outset, much of it has been to an organic and insular audience already well-acquainted with its tech roots. Moves like appointing Bosh as Dean of the League’s educational arm, the Drone Racing Academy, will no doubt draw interest from a larger audience, but it’s in the unanticipated turn inward we’ve all felt this year that could bring the DRL, quite literally, into hundreds of thousands more homes across the world.
“I think this is definitely going to be a case study one day. We’re going to look back and say, man, when did these things start? When did things happen, when did things shift?” Bosh enthusiastically told Dime on a call in early November. “And we’re going to look back to this time and it’s going to be one of those things that really catches fire because people are ready for it.”
Bosh was named Dean in mid-October, and while the fit feels extremely natural — he’s always ardently engaged with tech and his alma mater, Georgia Tech, was involved in developing the 1:1 code to develop the league’s racing simulator — it was the DRL that approached the 11-time All-Star.
“I wish I could say I was cool enough to discover it, be the first person to see that it was a cool thing,” Bosh says. “I’ve always been a huge advocate of teaching children the whole STEM philosophy and where it’s coming from, especially where you see the world going and the technological advances that have been happening.”
STEM is educational curriculum based in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, typically introduced to children in an application based approach. The benefits of STEM in a world as tech-forward as today’s are apparent, but its underlying skills are even more far-reaching. Things like problem solving, analytical thinking, and encouraging the ability to work independently all spring from STEM, tenets that fit naturally within the competitive world of the DRL.
“I would like to have thought I would be in that workforce if I wasn’t playing basketball, because that was pretty much my other interest.” Bosh chuckled. “To be an advocate for it, and to speak out and encourage kids to not only get an eduction but, yo man, pay a little more attention to STEM!”
In his new role, Bosh will help kids break down the science of the sport, focusing on things like speed and how drones fly. The DRL had previously held activities geared toward kids at its larger live racing events, inviting local schools where races were held as well as having panel sessions with pilots. With the necessary shift toward remote learning this September, the league readily adapted, working with schools and national organizations to fold the science of drone racing into ongoing curriculum. The end goal isn’t necessarily to make competitive pilots out of every kid, but to spark an interest and expose children to opportunities adjacent to the areas that the DRL touches, everything from aviation to electrical engineering.
“It’s interesting how many kids say that they don’t like math, or technology, and they haven’t even tried it,” Bosh laments. “I think this league is, one, it’s super fascinating, and two, it envelops so many different aspects of education to even be able to compete and be good.”
Being good at drone racing requires not only an inclination toward the technical aspects of the sport, but a practiced and hands-on understanding of the how to troubleshoot through the mechanical requirements of flying one. Simply put: Crashing happens, and you oftentimes need to put the pieces back together again.
Two-time DRL world champion Jordan “Jet” Temkin, who began flying drones in 2013, can’t even count the number of times he’s crashed.
“I wouldn’t have enough fingers, especially when I started,” Temkin says with a smile.
After coming across drones online and seeing a few videos of them in action, he thought building one looked “like a fun project, just a weekend project.” A self-proclaimed “ski bum photographer,” Temkin also saw in drones the opportunity to be able to chase his skiing and mountain biking friends out in the wilderness around his hometown of Fort Collins, Colo.
“It was one of those weekend passions or hobbies that I got more and more obsessed with, is the word I would use. I met some local friends and it turned into, ‘I bet my drone is faster than your drone,’” Temkin recalls. “And this was before drone racing existed. Drone racing didn’t start until around 2015.”
The way Temkin describes the underground days of drone racing,—people meeting in clandestine locations like a field behind a middle school to spontaneously race and crash their homemade drones — provokes a likeness out Fast & Furious lore. Even DRL Nicholas Horbaczewski came across his first glimpse of the sport by stumbling across a race in the parking lot of a Home Hardware.
When getting into the world of drone racing, you will quickly realize that passion, along with all the actual parts needed to make a drone fly, is a huge component of the sport. There was a charged and wide-eyed excitement that came through loud and clear on every call with its champions as much as it’s apparent in what it takes to go from a small, unofficial world of casual meet-ups to 50,000 person stadiums and a growing array of corporate and broadcast deals.
“When you think about this being a new playing field, which was our marketing campaign this fall, and DRL setting the stage for this new playing field for sports, it’s not just about the traditional,” DRL president Rachel Jacobson says. “Kids and adults are consuming sports in such a different way.”
Jacobson joined the DRL in April after a leap to the professional development tech startup aimed at women, Landit, and 21 years as an executive with the NBA. Sitting in a leadership role of company where entertainment, tech, and pro sports intersect, she is intuitively aware of each industry’s landscape and unique progression, as much as their collective drawbacks, primarily their shared dire need of diversification.
“I’ve been in these male-dominated industries and I’ve made it my mission to mentor and really accelerate the pipeline of women to ensure that they have those seats at the table,” Jacobson says. “I want to make sure that I’m not just doing great work on the business side, but that this becomes a win-win relative to the pipeline of talent that we’re really surrounded by a diverse workforce, because that’s where we get the best outcomes.”
While the DRL will soon be on a search for its first female pilot and wants to empower young women and girls in math and technology, two spaces women often avoid or are actively discouraged from, there is still a question of accessibility. To be able to grasp tech is one thing, but to have the resources to physically build it, repeatedly, could be a drawback. The DRL custom builds all of its racing drones and radio systems by hand at its New York City headquarters. Each one is a streamlined and highly-efficient model of cutting edge technology, truly not something you could cobble together at home even with the wherewithal to do so. But it was this hitch that happened to helpfully dovetail into the shrinking environment COVID-19 implemented worldwide.
With so many people stuck at home looking for things to do and new hobbies to try, the DRL saw an opportunity. It had already developed an immersive drone racing simulator with VR capabilities for pilots, releasing a version on the digital distribution service Steam. But, as Jacobson puts it, “We wanted to make sure that that was more mainstream.”
“This was all about accessibility,” she says. “Of making sure that if one household isn’t on Steam and they’re on an Xbox, and soon to be another console, that we have the right infrastructure in place for people to be able to log in to really learn to be able to fly and build drones. We’re a sport that’s powered by technology. So inherent in that there might be gaps or bridges that we need to build in terms of making sure that everyone has the accessibility to engage with our sport.”
Another obstacle to engagement could be the perception of the very vehicle that’s doing the racing. Drones, while ubiquitous by now, are also contentious. We are slowly beginning to understand the less glorified but potentially more important jobs drones can fulfill in things like agriculture, medical transport, or remote delivery to places in need of more than just Amazon next-day shipping.
The DRL, as a competitive sports franchise, understands its place in the entertainment world and is embracing it wholly, with sports betting soon being added to the growing list of its offerings. It’s the work its people are doing to bring the parts they love best about it outside the insular (but expanding) space that will begin to make drones resonate differently.
“There’s this lost art in figuring out what’s wrong and fixing it, and making things last longer. To me, a big part of that is confidence. It’s confidence in your own ability to both problem solve as well as just tinkering with electronics.” Temkin says of what the hands-on experience of drones has the potential to spark in people. “To a lot of people, electronics are like this black magic. Like, it works and I don’t know how it works. But once you really start to understand the basics, it’s not that scary.
“I think that’s one of the more important and easily overlooked aspects of, I guess, working through life,” he continues. “Being able to have a problem that you’re like, this thing in front of me isn’t working and how do I troubleshoot it? That troubleshooting is part of that confidence. It’s just slowly working piece by piece to eliminate variables until you can solve your problem that you’re having, whatever it may be.”
It isn’t hokey to want to assign human values to working with machines and technology. If anything, it’s an intensely human mechanism of its own when trying to make sense of something new and uniquely challenging.
Bosh, too, talked about the ultimate connectivity that something like drone racing, or building, or the process of that technology, can provide.
“I’ve had many kids come up to me [and say], I started coding, or I became an engineer cause of you, to be honest with you,” Bosh says. “And that really made me wake up and say this needs to be shouted from the mountaintops. And not that everybody is going to really understand what it is right away. But those who understand can start building those worlds, and making those friends, it could just be something else for them that didn’t exist before. And I think that’s really exciting. We’ve never had anything like this. Where we’re learning and going at the same time.”
In a year that has hit us with a barrage of limitations, there is another thing that drones seem to spark in the people working to ease and familiarize our understanding of them: A removal of barriers, whether physical or cognitive.
“It’s kind of like this transplantation of your consciousness,” Temkin says somewhat wistfully of his experience piloting drones. “You forget about your human body, you’re sitting on the ground or on a bench or whatever, but your mind is really this flying object and you just get to fly. You forget about everything else in the world.”
“I’m always optimistic of the future, and I think just right now we’re in a place where we can really build the next thing,” Bosh says excitedly. “But just this state that everyone’s in, I think everyone always needs a creative outlet. I think you need something to look forward to. Human beings are social animals, so we need to continue to stay social and continue to just really figure those things out through friendship, whether that’s online or offline, and see what we can create through all these platforms.”
Whether clocking in at 120 mph during a race or triggering a curiosity in a homebound kid, the basic premise of drones, and probably why they captivate as much as have the capacity to be written off as a gimmick, is so simple: just to fly. In helping people figure out how to do that, competitively or as technology that moves us forward, the DRL is putting progress through the paces as much as working to accelerate human connection.