The Drone Racing League (DRL) is taking off in more ways than one as the coronavirus pandemic brings most other sport to a standstill around the world.
The New York-based robotic racing series straddling the blurry line between real and virtual, with a global audience of millions, has seen viewing figures soar as countries go into lockdown.
DRL founder and CEO Nicholas Horbaczewski said Chinese viewership of the 2019 season reached seven million — up 70% on 2018.
“We finished the 2019 season in November. We delayed broadcast in China so it actually happened around Chinese New Year (January 25) and through the following primary virus restriction period,” he told Reuters.
Horbaczewski said the DRL was seeing changes in the US audience.
“Our last stream of the simulator trials phase we’re in, saw a 10% increase in viewership and a 30% increase in participation among people trying out,” he said.
“People are at home, looking for things to do and still excited about sports but don’t have access right now.”
The DRL is broadcast on traditional TV channels such as NBC, Sky Sports and FOX Sports Asia as well as streamed on digital platforms Twitter, Weibo and Youku.
The global series involves professional pilots racing custom built drones reaching speeds of more than 140 km/h around tight three-dimensional aerial circuits.
The last of 12 weekly online live-streamed global tournaments is Thursday, from which 12 winners will advance to the April 2 DRL Sim Tryout finals with one securing a professional contract to join the championship as a pilot.
The main season takes place in the second half of the year with live action, unlike esports where virtual replaces the real world.
Despite drone racing attracting thousands of live spectators, the championship could adapt to crowd-free conditions better than high contact team sports behind closed doors.
“One of the challenges sports now have are health concerns around the virus,” said Horbaczewski.
“It’s not just the fans in the stands. I think a lot of initial reactions were ‘We’ll do the sport without the fans’, but you have to worry about athletes, as the NBA highlighted.”
North America’s National Basketball Association suspended its season after a Utah Jazz player tested positive for the virus, with more players doing so since.
Global soccer leagues are also suspended with a number of players and staff testing positive.
“This is a sport where even at a physical event, the things making contact on the field of play are actually robots,” said Horbaczewski, who launched an online academy for students to learn about robotics, engineering and physics.
“I really believe robotic sport has a bright and exciting future.”