Drone Racing League hopes a UAV will land under your Christmas tree

Key Points
  • The Drone Racing League is making inroads into the market for toys and video games, just in time for the holidays.
  • The league is also holding tryouts for its pro racing league, and releasing a new beginner's racing drone.
One of the racing drones used during by the Drone Racing League.
Courtesy of Drone Racing League

Drones are appearing in movies, on television and at weddings. If the professional Drone Racing League has its way, the next stop will be under your Christmas tree.

The league is pushing into video games and toys, hoping to raise its brand awareness and attract more racers — and sponsors, said Matthew Hudak, a toys and games analyst at Euromonitor International. The research firm values the U.S. market for remote-control toys at $674 million.

The league, known for bringing unmanned aerial vehicle racing into the mainstream, is expanding into branded toys and video games — just in time for the holidays. The group is holding online tryouts for its pro league and is even releasing a new beginner's racing drone.

"If you're a great gamer out there, this could be your chance to become a pro athlete in just a few weeks' time," league founder Nicholas Horbaczewski said. The simulator's controls, at the advanced level, translate directly into flying actual drones.

"When you're done with it, you actually know how to fly a drone," he said.

Released on the online video games platform Steam, DRL's simulator is a quick way for players to reach the pro racing level. For the second consecutive year, the league is using the video game simulator to hold tryouts for its 2018 professional drone racing league, this year sponsored by Swatch, and anyone age 18 and older can try out to become a professional drone pilot, said Horbaczewski.

The winner nets a $75,000 season-long contract and will race real-life drones with the league around the world in 2018.

The simulator even accepts input from a new beginner's racing drone, released in collaboration with Toy State's Nikko brand. The DRL Nikko Air Race Vision 220 FPV Pro is a ready-to-fly drone that includes a controller, an LCD view screen and a goggle mount that converts it into the sport's signature first-person view. It also comes with some nice touches for amateurs, such as simple speed switches and removable prop guards to prevent propeller damage when you (inevitably) fly the drone into a wall.

Plug the Race Vision's controller into a computer running the league's official drone simulator, however, and gamers can control an in-game drone. The simulator lets amateur pilots practice their skills without risking the potential for a drone-wrecking, game-over crash.

The game, relaunched just a couple of weeks ago, sports an all-new physics engine that the company says allows players to accurately simulate a virtual race.

Just don't bring the Race Vision to an actual race. While the drone maxes out at a reasonable 25 miles per hour, it seems absolutely pedestrian compared with the 90 mph achievable with the League's professional Racer3.

It's also entirely possible to re-create the DRL-branded Nikko kit on your own: Non-DRL branded software, some free, exists to help pilots quickly become acclimated with flying a drone, and most will accept input from a console controller. Some professional radio controllers designed to fly drones can even function as USB controllers. And manufacturers like Hubsan sell first-person view drones that include everything needed to fly out of the box.

Racers unable to afford the cost of professional drone gear can get the Race Vision 220 as a reasonably priced alternative. The unit is available in stores (Target sells it for $139.99), and the DRL simulator can be downloaded via Steam for $19.99.