Can drone racing find a home on college campuses?
The, supposedly, collegiate nature of college sports has been long at odds with an audience that desires nothing less than mayhem, violence and the thrills and ebbs of chaos. The many institutions overseeing traditional college sports have commendably adapted over time, bending rules and regulations in favor of player safety. It is a testament to the essential decency of man that we’ve done away with deadly gladiator matches in favor of much more friendly games like football, lacrosse and soccer, but every change leaves the audience wanting. Spectators come for the hits and broken limbs, they relish the violence of beating a rival. However, the sorts of thrilling moments that make for good watching inevitably come with the chance of casualties.
Content producers for sports are constantly asking themselves how to make their content more exciting without killing the spirit of the game. The best way to do it with last century technology was to focus on the players. The game around the game, the drama of the reality shows. But the changing tides have brought amazing innovations to this century, and some people are wondering if its not best to change the game itself. A sport could encourage thrills and openly embrace the violence when the potential for casualties is taken out.
Over the years one avenue of new sports has been competitive gaming. The streaming service Twitch has catered to well over 200 million young gaming fans. The success of League of Legends competitions has led to at least 5 colleges offering scholarships for the game.
Now enter drone sports. On the fringe of the traditional sporting establishment, the festive and exhilarating game of drone racing is constantly gaining momentum, viewership, and competitors. Tens of millions of views on drone racing videos, 1 million+ drones sold in 2015, and Forbes is asking whether drone racing is the new Superb Owl.
Drones present the perfect solution to the problems of casualties and excitement in sport – replace the student athlete with a robot and no one gets hurt when objects collide. The infatuation with athleticism that was a staple of American life just a century ago is, for whatever reason, somewhat lost on the younger generations of today. Pop culture in the digital age consistently favors the nerd over the jock, so perhaps it is unsurprising that we see more and more joysticks on ESPN.
New as of 2016, the Drone Racing League hosted a closed race in the Miami Dolphins home stadium recently. And they made sure to get plenty of video footage from it. The setting looks like something out of a sci-fi B-movie: the course is aglow with green neon portals and blue guides. The drones hover momentarily before zooming off, each outfitted in a panel of colored LEDs to distinguish between competitors.
They streak across the screen, the ones that make it through the portals enter the bowels of the stadium for a riveting close-corners segment of the track. Others aren’t so lucky. One bot clips a rail, destroying a propeller and falling gracelessly out of the sky. Another pilot misjudges his direction and slams his drone at full speed into invulnerable concrete. Perfect fodder for digital students.
Colleges across the country are starting to develop programs around the technology, to equip students for a future filled with the ubiquitous presence of flying drones. In addition to military and sporting use, companies like Amazon show a great interest in using these bots for instant, unimpeded delivery of goods.
I decided to talk to a student just getting into the core of his classes at Middle Tennessee State University. The school boasts the most impressive Aerospace program in the region.
Victor Migliore was just completing his first year when he heard about an experimental new program within the school. The next semester he would enter with a an academic focus new to both him and the University: Unmanned Aerial Systems Operations.
His passion for flying machines drove him to purchase one of the many lower-end quadcopters available on the internet, a Syma X5C. He was ecstatic when the slick white drone arrived, ready to fly out of the box and featuring a flip capability, HD camera and 6-axis Gyro stabilization system. The bot can only fly for seven minutes on a charge, but that was more than enough for a race, Victor thought. The X5C hardware pales in comparison to the higher-end and custom quadcopters whose cost alone would make any college student’s head spin, but that didn’t stop Victor from pursuing a friendly skirmish.
There was only one problem: he had no one to fly with. There are no drone racing teams at a school that prides itself on a nationally renowned Aerospace program. Victor was disappointed, but not exactly surprised. In his one year with the UASO focus, his second and the first it was available, he only met one other student with the concentration.
Soon the academic focus will be publicized to a far greater extent, and Victor sees himself meeting more like-minded pilots before he graduates. He’s optimistic that drone racing will make it’s way to his school, it’s just a matter of time. Victor sees the sport as the sort of thing the administration could fall in love with. Not only would be excellent fun, but a drone racing team and the buzz it could produce could go a long way towards earning the UASO program an academic certification. It would be the first of its kind to do so, which would mean an incredible amount to the school. On top of all this, a team could foster an inter-disciplinary community, potentially bringing together students from Aerospace, Engineering, and Mass Communications. “Building robots is for everyone,” said Lisa Winter, of BattleBots fame. Racing them is for everyone as well, and with a proper team both could be done at MTSU.
The University has all the ingredients and incentive to hold exhilarating drone racing in their own backyard. The question is, if the people can be brought together, how will they operate? Who do they reach out to?
“We’d have to start a chapter here, or we’d have to start a league of our own,” Victor explained.
MTSU is only one of many schools across the nation that could host this nascent but magnificent sport. The possibilities for the future of drone racing and nontraditional sport on college campuses are endless and wonderful. It’s sort of bewildering. “Thrilling” is a word that could describe not only the races themselves, but the atmosphere around it, the world that’s building its foundation as I type. Radical innovators are gaining the momentum they need to change the world of sport, and everyday seems to nudge us forward into a daily reality that looks a whole lot like science fiction.