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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Collins

The Future of Drone Racing and Why China Will Dominate It

Wait, what on earth is drone racing? Naturally, you’ve have heard of drones, those unmanned flying things that make that irritating buzzing noise. Generally, we hear about them in the context of photography or as the future of delivery services, but sports? Surely not.

Drone racing started in Australia in 2014 and first gained widespread recognition when a race video went viral on social media. FPV (first-person view) drone racing involves pilots, equipped with video goggles, navigating their drone around a 400m course at speeds of up to 160 km/h. Illuminated checkpoints mark the course and racers must avoid bridges, hoops, trees and other obstacles depending on the location.

Fast paced, full of close shaves and tight corners which lead to manoeuvres that you won’t see anywhere else. In all, races are quite spectacular and resemble a Star Wars pod-race. Better yet, if a crash does occur, the drones generally “explode into a thousand pieces” says Nick Horbaczewski, Founder of the Drone Racing League (DRL). Great action for racing fans, but without the risk of serious injury.

“Drone racing gives anyone the ability to fly like a superhero” Dr Scot Refsland, Chairman of the IDRA, explains. The virtual reality viewing experience certainly seems to provide a captivating spectacle; the DRL has raised $12 million to date, including investment from Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross. It has also signed broadcasting deals with ESPN, OLS and 7Sports and boasts sponsors including: GoPro, Mountain Dew, EY and AIG.

Aside from the thrill of racing as if sitting in the drone’s cockpit there are 3 main reasons behind its success:

1: It’s cool. “Every person under the age of 13 either has a drone or wants one. We are going to raise a generation of pilots” Nick Horbaczewski says. Kids love it because it makes them feel like superheroes and it gets people away from the sofa which gets parents on board.

2: It’s a crossover of motor racing and eSports. Racing is popular across the world in its various forms and when paired with eSports, one of the fastest developing sectors in the world, you have a very exciting prospect.

3: It’s affordable. In comparison to other racing sports like cars or even planes, racing drones are cheap, available from $370 and bounce safely in a crash. This will allow it to grow an active fan base quickly. Additionally, unlike other racing sports, you don’t have to be of a certain body type or fitness level to handle your vehicle.

As Drone racing gained more enthusiasts around the world, it’s now professionally organised and moderated by the International Drone Racing Association (IDRA). Currently, the sport is dominated by Australia, the US and Europe. But a big player will join soon, China.

When it comes to drones, China is the world leader. Shenzhen-based DJI commands 70% of the world’s consumer drone market. Both the Chinese government and numerous US companies have invested big in Chinese drone companies, which has led to a huge number of new drone-related startups arriving each month.

So, in terms of technology, China is very well placed, but what about engagement? Well, Chinese fans love racing, it doesn’t matter if it’s cars, horses or humans. For instance, since 2004, Formula 1 has included Shanghai on its regular circuit and Formula E has just announced its second annual race in China. Horse riding has also seen rapid growth over recent years with gross revenue has increased 20% year on year.

China is also the largest video game market in the world. No longer a niche sport, earnings of the eSports players can top $2 million a year, and that’s just from prize money. China now has over 100 million eSports fans and it’s still growing fast. You may want to think about quitting your silly ball kicking sport, it’s not too late yet.

With its first-person angles and space age lighting, the viewing experience from a drone race has a very video game-like feel to it. In that regard, it could be the perfect sport for the Chinese market. August 2016 saw Shenzhen host Asia’s biggest drone racing event to date. The top 24 teams in the Asia-Pacific region were present and, for the first time ever, raced across water. And there is more to come, Shanghai is hosting a 2-day event in May and the FPV classic is coming to Beijing in October.

Only the future will tell if drone racing will really soar to the highest heights globally, but there is no doubting the potential it has! So, until then: On your marks. Set your drones. Go!

Mailman is the leading China sports marketing platform. We help global rights holders, athletes, and leagues build a successful business in China. We serve, invest and partner with our clients at every opportunity.

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