Some stories are simply unbelievable. The Allianz Drone Racing League, which was drawn up during a meeting in a vacant lot behind a Home Depot in Long Island and now broadcasts to more 75 countries in just over three years, is one of those stories.
Enter Nicholas Horbaczewski, who before starting the league found success as the Chief Revenue Officer of Tough Mudder. In early 2015, Horbazewski left his job with the hopes of starting his own company.
“Whenever I’d talk to someone about the different startup concepts, their eyes would immediately light up when I mentioned drone racing,” Horbazewski says. “They’d start comparing the sport to Star Wars or their favorite video game from growing up and pitching ideas on how to develop it, what it could like, where the races could be held. It was those conversations that helped me realize that building DRL was a risk that I truly wanted to take.”
The desire to take that risk led Horbaczewski to a Home Depot with Ryan Gury, now the Director of Product for the Drones Racing League. Gury, prior to meeting with Horbaczewski, had been working on his own company called DroneKraft, in which working people could make their own high-performance drones, complete with first-person vision goggles. It took one meeting and a field test with a drone to dictate what Horbaczewski’s next move would be. In fact, Horbaczewski was so captivated that he later bought DroneKraft.
“I was captivated by the speed and excitement,” Horbaczewski says. “I immediately saw the potential for the sport to grow into something bigger than it was, and we got to work on building out the technology, media and sports ecosystem required to professionalize drone racing and bring it to a global fan base.”
Any kind of startup would feature a myriad of challenges. Getting the DRL off the ground was no different, and required taking an innovative approach. The company spent its infancy working out what cameras they were going to use to film everything, how to create an interesting product for mass consumption, and most of all, trying to find a market for what was a niche sport confined to Reddit and message boards. Oh, and there was also the matter of trying to figure out how to produce drones.
“When we were starting DRL, we spent months meeting with dozens of vendors and drone experts who recommended circuit boards, flight controllers, and other gear to help us develop high-speed racing quads,” Horbazewski says. “However, each time we put the parts together, we learned that there was no end to the ways the drones would fail, from barely lifting off to crashing immediately once up in the air.”
Rather than dealing with vendors, Horbaczewski and the crew cut out the middle man. They’d build the drones up from the circuit boards, customizing them each step of the way. Twenty-six patents and 600 drones later, the group had a fleet of drones ready to fly. One of the key patents that makes the DRL so unique is the advanced radio system which allows a drone to fly as far as a mile and a half away from its operator while feeding the driver real-time information through their FPV goggles.