Nicholas Horbaczewski founded the Drone Racing League (DRL), the global, premier drone racing circuit, in early 2015, and now supervises the growth, innovation in the development, and execution of technology. Drone Racing League publicly launched in 2016 and has hosted three DRL Allianz World Championship Seasons of professional drone races in iconic venues around the globe that’s been watched by more than 57 million fans worldwide and airs on digital platforms and broadcast networks like Twitter, NBC and Sky Sports. DRL’s elite pilots race custom-built DRL drones through three-dimensional tracks, flying FPV (First Person View), where they see a live video feed transmitted through a pair of goggles. Capturing the sport through 50-60 cameras at each event and producing cutting edge drone racing content with FPV race footage, the tech-enabled sports organization has been delivering an immersive experience in the live sports arena. In an interview with CIOReview, speaking on the importance of technology in sports, Horbaczewski mentions the significance of developing in-house technology to grow into a successful sports organization.
1. How has the sports technology landscape evolved in recent years due to the integration of cutting-edge technology?
The Drone Racing League is an exceptional example of some of the significant changes happening in the sports technology landscape. We are a technology-enabled sports company using complex, proprietary radio systems, drones and other forms of innovations for flying robots. Technology has moved from enhancing existing sports to creating and enabling new genres that were not possible before.
2. What are the challenges pertaining to the advancement of technology in sports?
Whether it’s robotic sports or traditional sports, fans’ expectation for the integration of technology is increasing. Thus, the challenge is to meet fan expectations by inculcating tech into every aspect of the sports broadcast. For example, spectators demand to consume media on a wide range of digital platforms like Twitter and broadcast networks like NBC, and it’s about maintaining a presence relevant to those fans and sharing it through various channels—which requires using technology. But it’s not just about trying to integrate off-the-shelf technology; rather the challenge for sports entities is to also research, innovate, and develop new novel tech solutions in addition to operating sports.
"Technology has moved from enhancing existing sports to creating and enabling new genres that were not possible before"
3. In order to address those challenges, what should be the strategy for adopting the right solutions?
Sports organizations are working with a number of vendors across different platforms to deliver their services. However, as per our experience, the core technology that enables sports should be owned and developed in-house. If we had employed off-the-shelf technology, it wouldn’t have been possible for us to host three-dimensional, professional drone races all over the world for millions of fans to watch on TV and live.
4. Where is the sports technology industry heading and what should organizations do to stay ahead of the curve?
Integrating novel technology into sports has created possibilities to create next-generation sports entertainment. Today, sports organizations have to realize and advance at the pace of technology. Becoming both a tech company and a sports league at the same time in order to continuously evolve is the most important lesson we learned at DRL. We have an entire team of world-class drone engineers who innovate daily to enable us to do new things; every season, we introduce new drones and new tech-enabled media to make the races even more thrilling to watch and easy to follow—as our fans do not want to watch static sports. Similarly, organizations have to adapt and incorporate technology into various aspects of their games to deliver an engaging experience for fans.
5. In the future do you see any particular technology that is going to have a significant impact?
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is going to touch sports in every aspect from how professional events are shot and edited to what’s going on in the field of play. We recently partnered with Lockheed Martin around an innovation challenge to recruit engineers to design AI for high-speed, autonomous racing drones in our new circuit called AIRR, which stands for Artificial Intelligence Robotic Racing. In AIRR, AI pilots in autonomous drones will be competing against each other. Until now, AI has yet to enter the realm of real-life sports as a competitor, but with AIRR, we will test an AI pilot as a real competitor for the first time. Witnessing a moment when AI will defeat a human pilot will be a paradigm shift in how we think about the role of AI in our lives. The combination of robotics and AI will fundamentally change the face of what sports can be.
6. How has your journey in the sports technology landscape been so far?
It has been exciting and challenging; drone racing expertise was plagued in its early days, and people who had big visions for what it could be fell short due to the absence of relevant technologies. We had a technological failure in our first racing event, and as a result, we took a step back and spent months developing novel technology to make the vision of DRL possible. The process was challenging, but it was also incredibly rewarding at the end of the journey. We not only created new sports content to entertain millions of fans around the world but also created technology that didn’t exist.
7. Any advice to management and startups in the sports technology space?
Decision makers should embrace technology as a core part of the business. Initially, they should look for vendors that are genuinely flourishing in providing solutions for their sports and later should pursue the development of technology as it evolves. Although it takes time, resources for building in-house solutions and a commitment to become a technology company is paramount for the enhancement of sports.
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