Fifteen-year old Luke Bannister and his Tornado X-Blades from the U.K. won the World Drone Prix in Dubai this March. Bannister and his team pocketed $250,000, a large sum of money to be sure, but sill far below the “one million dollar prize” touted by Dubai organizers leading up to the race. There was in fact a total of one million dollars in compensation for all contestants, but advertisements implied that the grand prize award to the winner would be one million.
Drone racing is a new sport, and so naturally there will be growing pains for those tasked with figuring out how to broadcast it in an entertaining way. The actual race video reveals this lack of experience in filming sporting events, particularly racing competitions. As an advertisement for the drone race track, the broadcast did a fine job. A technical feat in itself, the track shifts and changes over the course of the race, and it draws the eye like an electro-carnival from a distance. But hardly any video was shown of the drones themselves. And since each contestant flew the track solo against the clock in a time trial format, the natural drama of a “race” was squandered. If racing dogs, horses, and cars can get spectators out of their seats to cheer, why not drones?
The end result was a boring, amateurish, disorganized outdoor event. Racing against a clock is a familiar format for qualifying races, not championship finals. The track should have been built to accommodate all teams to racing from a simultaneous start. It goes without saying that sharing a track creates more opportunities for crashes, but as any NASCAR fan knows, the risk of crashes are what makes the sport exciting to watch. And these are drones, so why not allow them to bump and crash? They’re expensive for a gadget, but nowhere near as pricey as a speed boat, stock car, Ducati motorcycle, or a Formula 1 race car, which are raced stern-to-bow and wheel-to-wheel. With no human lives on the line, it seems hard to justify this cautious time trial approach to a drone Grand Prix.
What could fix drone racing’s broken format for broadcast? In short: danger, daylight, and dozens more cameras. Drone racing should have the potential for crashes and “bumps”. It should be held during the day with adequate cameras placed around the track covering all the drones’ movements, and not relying solely on the dizzying and disorienting footage from the drones. On-board video from the racers should be used sparingly, and would serve best as a replay angle for any collisions with obstacles or other racers.
The “1 million dollar prize” hype was effective at generating buzz among drone pilots, but at a time when eyeballs are needed more than drone teams, that money might best be spent on hiring the right production team or developing a more sophisticated way of broadcasting. We here at NerdCity are hoping that the drone race in Hawaii later this year will take some tips from Dubai’s failures, and become a more compelling broadcast sport. But until the kinks are worked on the production side, drone races will continue to lose out to re-runs of hotdog-eating competitions on ESPN.