Los Angeles is known for entertainment, aviation, and an abundance of sunshine. Thanks to those three features, the city is also earning a reputation for something else: a hub for the new sport--yes, fans consider it a sport--of drone racing. 

One of the biggest leagues, the International Drone Racing Association (IDRA), now hosts races in Arizona, Virginia, and even Dubai, but its headquarters are split between the City of Angels and San Francisco. Aerial Grand Prix, which now has 10 chapters around the world, also has Southern California roots--it was founded in Los Angeles in 2014. 

And even for those leagues that aren't based in Los Angeles, the city provides plenty of cool locations to hold races. In March, New York-based Drone Racing League transformed Los Angeles's abandoned Hawthorne Mall into a dystopian race course, for an event entitled "L.A.Pocalypse," complete with a torched "Hollywood" sign.

L.A.-based cameramen Ryo Rex and Sven Tusak first heard about consumer drones in 2014, from some friends in Australia. They were intrigued to hear of another device that could allow them to capture cool aerial footage, but they were really hooked once they could saw how fun it was to zip and zag the drones through the air. 

"They were perfect for getting that adrenaline rush," Rex recalls. They decided to create obstacle courses and run races with the drones, building tracks out of PVC pipes and filming videos to upload onto their YouTube channel. The channel eventually morphed into a racing league, called Aerial Grand Prix to evoke an association with high speed car racing leagues such as NASCAR and Formula One.

Today, drone racing has become more than just a backyard gathering--last year's World Drone Prix race doled out $250,000 to the winner, and attracted more than 2,000 spectators. And on April 12 the IDRA announced that it had signed a media distribution deal with ESPN. ESPN3 will livestream two of the IDRA's events this year: the U.S. National Drone Racing Championships in August and the World Drone Racing Championships in October. The network will also televise a one-hour program dedicated to each event.

"We showed them the potential drone racing has for a 21st century spectating experience," says Sahand Barati, CEO of IDRA. 

Bringing drone racing to life

Barati was first introduced to consumer drones after he received one as a Christmas gift in 2014. Like Rex, he loved the adrenaline rush that came with trying to commandeer the drone at high speeds. 

He searched the internet to find other drone enthusiasts, and attended his first drone racing event--thrown by Aerial Grand Prix--in June 2015 in Alameda, California. That's when the lightbulb really went off. 

"I saw the first-person view experience, and really saw an opportunity here for a new industry or a new sport that could gain traction very quickly," Barati says.

He did some more research, and contacted a man named Justin Haggerty who was getting ready to launch his own drone racing league--the IDRA. Haggerty brought on Barati and a third man, Charles Zabland, to create the league. IDRA's first series of events, called the California Cup, consisted of six races, with the finale held in Los Angeles.

As drone racing has grown in popularity, both Aerial Grand Prix and IDRA have expanded their global reach: this year the latter's U.S. and World Championships will be held in New York and Dubai, respectively. Aerial Grand Prix plans to keep it's races free and open to the public for the time being, while IDRA has entrance fees of $20 to $40.

Both Rex and Barati say that California's mild climate makes it an ideal place to run a series of races. But Los Angeles is also a big aviation hub--there are more than 300 companies in the aerospace and defense industries in L.A. County, which in turn employ more than 56,000 people. And pilots--in addition to action sports enthusiasts, techies, and cameramen like Rex and Tusak--have made up many of the early adopters of drones.

"Part of California's culture is about being attuned to new trends," says Barati. 

The next frontier

Drone racing isn't just a California phenomenon--more and more drone enthusiasts are  looking to start their own leagues around the country. There's the Multi GP League, founded in 2015 by Chris Thomas, who lives in Florida. And the New-York based Drone Racing League, which launched in January, also has ambitions to make the sport the next NASCAR.

But as drone leagues compete with each other, what they'll need are partners who can help them introduce drone racing to households across the U.S. And that's where the IDRA, with an office in Los Angeles, currently has the upper hand. IDRA has tapped production company Generate LA, which has produced content for networks like Comedy Central, to produce the specials for ESPN.

"We believe we have kind of an entertainment dream team, so to speak," Barati says. 

Drone companies themselves are also looking to Hollywood to help elevate the status of the tech gadget.  Earlier in April, drone manufacturer DJI tapped Academy-Award winning director Claudio Miranda to help present its $4,599 drone geared toward film companies at the National Association of Broadcasters conference. 

And Rex, though he still runs Aerial Grand Prix, has also migrated more into the entertainment side of the business. He now lives in Shenzhen, China, as a creative director for DJI, where he's working on developing drone video games, part of what Barati believes is a necessary part of the next wave of  developing more content for the drone industry. 

"It's the dawn of a new industry, from both a business and media perspective," Barati says.

Published on: Apr 25, 2016