Virtually no one in the business world will argue that drones are forging new paths into countless industries – to good effect. It’s only a matter of time before drones occupy an important place in our marketplace. But given the reticence of certain segments to embrace the technology, and the resulting FAA restrictions on how
Virtually no one in the business world will argue that drones are forging new paths into countless industries – to good effect. It’s only a matter of time before drones occupy an important place in our marketplace. But given the reticence of certain segments to embrace the technology, and the resulting FAA restrictions on how and where they can be used, we’ve got many hurdles before this drone utopia can take hold. To get us there, the public’s support would go a long way in expediting regulations and implementing various applications.
Commercial Drone Applications Surge Ahead
Investments in drone companies are on the rise. July 2015 saw DJI, the world’s foremost drone manufacturer, partner with venture firm Accel to start a fund specifically to invest in start-up drone technologies. Airware raised over $40M over five rounds of funding and now has its own fund for investing in drone startups. Hundreds of millions have been invested betting on the technology that will make drones a useful production multiplier in society worldwide.
Simultaneously, there has been an explosion in the applications for commercial drones. Everything from mapping, oil and gas exploration, agriculture, medical device delivery, military, and the old standby, surveillance. Consumers are equally invested. Drones are flying and taking great images of landscapes, weddings, news events, sporting events and action related selfies. I believe the consumer will begin to seek a more competitive application for their $400 – $1,500 drone investment.
Yet even amidst all of this development and enthusiasm, the FAA has to work out the details necessary for a full-scale commercial drone rollout. Because a large scale set of rules that define who can do what is not yet clear, the future of commercial drone use in the U.S. is directly tied to future FAA guidelines
Drone Racing to Spur Widespread Embrace of the Technology
So we’ve got big technological investments in drones on the commercial side, and strong consumer demand. Now, just as in all other cult followings that went mainstream (surfing and video gaming to name two), arises the sport of drone racing. And it’s just what we need for drones to become woven into the consciousness of people worldwide.
OK, drone racing has not yet become a sport, but it’s on the way there. I am not alone in this belief. Dolphins owner, Stephen Ross, recently invested $1 million in a drone racing league. Separately, the first drone racing championship was held last month in Sacramento Ca. with attendees from around the world. A total of approximately 100+ of the best drone racers in the world were in attendance. CBS, FOX National and Univision (Latino) covered the event live, as well as all the local TV stations. Fast Company, Tested.com, and The Roswell Flight Test Crew were there as well as crews who were filming for four documentaries. The event was seen in over 126 countries!
Unlike so many spectator sports, drone racing has a distinct advantage. I suspect soon we will see a way for attendees to become completely immersed in the sport through first person point of view, allowing onlookers to experience each contestant’s unique perspective. This aspect will take sports entertainment to a whole new level, fueling an even more committed following.
So what’s the connection between drone racing and the growth of the drone industry, you ask? Here are four things:
- Little League to Big League Family Involvement: Now that drone racing is gaining legitimacy, with rules, known tricks, and top pilots to follow, young kids will start to take up the sport with their parents’ support. As time goes on, new young pilots will enter the funnel, working their way toward the big leagues, all the while bringing ever greater attention to and comfort with drones overall – at the family level. These same young pilots with hundreds of hours of flying time will find quality piloting jobs worldwide in a variety of drone related activities. UAV-related careers will go mainstream.
- Formation of a Massive Group of Loyal Spectators: Drone racing has the potential to be a spectator sport that will attract millions of people (and the multinational brands that want their attention) from around the globe, year round. Such a mass of enthusiasts, properly organized, will help the FAA apply rules that ensure safe operation without legislating out of fear and lack of information about the public’s understanding.
- Professionalization of Piloting Skills: Drone racing requires an acquired skillset honed over time. Like any other sport, pilots must train and compete to improve their abilities. Even more important, drone racing requires a level of certification to compete. You must be a member of the AMA where you are required to adhere to a set of well documented rules and safety requirements. Most important is that all racers are covered under the AMA’s insurance. These requirements are relatively simple and inexpensive to obtain, making it easy for nearly anyone who wants to participate to get in. Overcoming these hurdles brings a certain level of professionalism to the sport and the industry which will be much needed as more and more drones are in use worldwide.
- Racing Will Drive Innovation: In every sport where there is competition, new technologies are created to improve performance, increase safety, and raise the entertainment level for spectators and future enthusiasts. Competition makes these innovations a necessity and the racing environment is the real world test bed where ideas can be proven before reaching the commercial or consumer market.
I have no doubt that without becoming a sport, drones will continue to gain acceptance. That said, if those of us in the drone industry want to avoid a plateau in the consumer market, drive innovation and motivate useful legislation I say support drone racing to maximize the impact of our current investments and attract even more.
Wisely, drone manufacturers have made it easy to get started in the sport. All veteran pilots will suggest using mini-drones in the beginning. As with any new endeavor requiring advanced skills, you can expect to crash in the early days as you hone your craft. With mini drones, you can do so without fear of damaging an expensive tool until your skills justify moving up the ladder to a more sophisticated racer.
Watch closely over the next 12-18 months – I predict that we’ll see new leagues, events, pilots and product sales related to drone racing grow. And in due course, it will be the racers, teams and spectators who will bring professionalism, safety, and innovation front and center, ensuring ongoing growth and securing the billions already invested in our growing industry.