The World's Most Innovative Companies 2017
The Drone Racing League is a global, professional series of spectacle-filled competitions in which pilots don VR-like headsets (which provide a drone’s-eye view of the course) and zip their souped-up, custom drones at speeds above 90 miles per hour through gnarly, neon-lit obstacle courses. DRL, founded in 2015, held its first official race at the Miami Dolphins’ Hard Rock Stadium at the end of 2015. By the following fall, it had a major sponsor (Bud Light) and deals with three of the world’s top sports networks—ESPN, Sky Sports in the U.K., and Germany’s ProSieben—to broadcast its inaugural 10-episode, five-race season. The networks also invested in the league itself: Sky’s and ProSieben’s 7Sports networks are funding some of DRL’s operating costs, and Hearst Ventures, which owns a minority stake in ESPN, participated in a $12 million investment round last fall. In 2017, the league announced a multi-year sponsorship deal with the insurer Allianz.
DRL touts its technical prowess as the key to winning over partners and investors. Each drone in its 350-strong fleet is built with a patented radio technology that dramatically reduces the latency between what the drone, pilot, and viewer sees, and is encased in a crash-resistant carbon fiber frame that is covered in 100 color-differentiated LED lights (to avoid the “gnats in a field” look associated with most drone-racing footage).
Founder and CEO Nicholas Horbaczewski continues to find creative ways to introduce his league to new audiences: In 2016 the company launched the DRL Racing Simulator, a video-game tournament in which the winner received a $75,000 contract (courtesy of Bud Light), and in December 2016 signed a licensing deal to develop DRL-branded racing drones for kids.