Drones

Onwards and Upwards for DSA – Interview with Dr. Scot Refsland

Drone Sports Association Cover Photo

Interview with Co-Founder and Chairman of the Drone Sports Association (DSA), Dr. Scot Refsland

As the the CEO of Flying Grounds and Co-Founder and Chairman of the DSA, and with the Drone Worlds in Hawaii fast approaching Scot Refsland is a rather busy man in drone racing.

We caught up with Scot for a chat to talk about how the Nationals went, GoPro,VR and Hawaii.

Third Law Sports: So the 2016 Nationals are now done and dusted. How did they go, what were the highlights and what were the main issues in your words?

Scot: The 2016 National Drone Racing Championships presented by GoPro was designed to answer one burning question… is drone racing destined to be only an amateur hobby designed for pilot experience, or can it become a sustainable professional spectator sport?

To answer this question, there were several key elements that needed to be integrated and run together in a very large scale, live event: These elements are: 1) Pilots, 2) Fans, 3) Brands, 4) Broadcast & Media, 5) Technology, 6) Operations and Infrastructure, and 7) Government, insurance, safety, rules and regulatory support.

The results are clear and the answer is yes, drone racing is now a professional sport. Sure there were hiccups, issues and problems, but most of those issues can be contributed to early stage technical, infrastructure and startup organizational growing pains. Looking at the bigger picture, DN16 made many historical milestones by successfully cementing the foundations for professional drone sports for years by key performance indicators.

First up is that it was the largest spectator event in global drone racing history: estimated 20k onsite free and paying visitors over three days, proving there is spectator demand.

As has been heavily discussed it was the first drone race to live broadcast on a major network (ESPN). It was also the largest professional style event with the most governmental support and assistance: FAA, FCC, AMA, NYPD Air, three nearby heli-ports, Drone Users Group and the Drone Pilots Federation. DN16 demonstrated best practices for safe drone racing in a dense urban environment, with approximately 500 full scale aircraft flights and 1000+ UAV aircraft flights together all within a 5 mile radius over three days and zero incidents.

It was the largest hobby and non hobby sponsored event in global history with blue chip sponsors including GoPro, AIG, EMC{code}, EY, LowePro, and others. DN16 is the only US drone racing event to comply fully with FCC Part 15. All pilots were able to legally operate their FPV video transmitters without a HAM license and with prize money. 2015 Drone Nationals was the first.

DN16 was the first event globally to offer four categories; individual, team, wing and freestyle at a single event. It was the first event globally to use a qualifying structure instead of open entry, establishing the first official US ranking system across multiple leagues and organizers. It had the highest prize purse in the USA in history, and the second highest internationally.

Impressively too DN16 boasted the highest number of media and journalists covering the event. This was approximately 130, resulting in over 150 articles and stories, generating almost one billion views.

It included the first track to be designed around the spectator including features such as the Gauntlet and “The Flying Fish Aquarium.” It was the first event to broadcast onboard HD live footage directly to major live broadcast.

Undoubtedly Drone Nationals is now the definitive model marking a clear distinction between amateur and professional drone racing organizations and events.

Third Law Sports: What did you learn ahead of the Worlds in October?

Scot: We still have a lot to do to make make the jump between a spectator interested in drone racing to a loyal fan that follows their favorite pilot or team. The Worlds is now focused on creating heroes out of pilots via the live international ESPN broadcast.

We’re heavily focusing on ensuring more airtime for pilots, both flight and broadcast coverage.

Drone Worlds banner

Third Law Sports: You have an interesting background in VR. Did the Sky Lab prove popular at the Nationals? Can we expect more of the same at the Worlds?

Scot: The Sky Lab, presented by EMC{code}, was a huge hit and was the first time many people saw the connection between drone racing, eSports and next generation, multi-reality broadcast.

We purposefully put the AIG and EMC{code} tents together as there are many investors interested in this technology but they don’t have a good contextual understanding of how it all fits together. The ‘ah-ha!’ moment doesn’t have the same impact until you actually experience how augmented and virtual reality technology will be used in sports.

The Worlds will have some VR component to it, but since we’ve now proven the proof of concept to Wall Street, we’re focusing more on traditional broadcast and continuing to make the overall racing infrastructure more robust.

You’ll see VR emerge in drone racing in 2017.

Third Law Sports: The US Drone Nationals had a formidable sponsor in GoPro. Can you tell us about the background of this deal, who approached who and were there other sponsors vying for the opportunity?

Scot: We’ve been talking with GoPro since the 2015 Drone Nationals about whether drone racing is a good fit.

With the ESPN deal, that was enough to encourage many of the blue chip sponsors to put their hat in the ring. With GoPro entering the drone market in the near future, there was a much more compelling reason to be involved with a community that highly supports and uses their products.

For us, GoPro is a great thought partner and innovator that we really enjoy working with.

Drone Nationals winners in front of GoPro sign

Third Law Sports: Flying Grounds is another of your ventures and is aimed at combining drone racing and education. Can you tell us more about this?

Scot: Flying Grounds is actually the holding corporation for the Drone Sports Association and the other related ideas and companies we are incubating.

2016 Drone Nationals debuted many of those ideas, and you’ll see several of them appear in 2017. As a career educator and researcher, many of the ideas are founded in “Drone Citizenship” so that the overall drone sports industry has a solid educational component to its ecosystem.

Third Law Sports: The Drone Worlds in Hawaii are coming up in October with $200,000 up for grabs in prizes. Are the courses finalized, and can we expect any surprises such as the popular Aquarium at the Nationals?

Scot: The courses are 90% completed with some very cool surprises for the pilots. Since the Worlds will be more focused on the ESPN broadcast and racing, we probably won’t have anything as exotic as the Aquarium. That was extremely fun! We’ve also scaled back our online tournament as we’re not completely happy with the performance, so the prize purse is back to the original $100K distributed over the four categories.

Third Law Sports: Can you confirm or deny that Ghostface Killah will be a pilot at the Worlds?

Scot: Hmmm… I guess you’ll have to come to Hawaii to find out!

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