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Drone racing puts humanity at its center, for now

Drone racing puts humanity at its center, for now


In Real Steel (2011), beloved metal claw man, Hugh Jackman, plays a washed up boxer trying to find his place in a world where technology has left him behind. He’s been made obsolete, because it’s the year 2020 and boxers have been replaced by boxing robots, because of course they have. As Jackman, his estranged son, and sometimes love interest eventually discover, however, there is something irreplaceable about humanity, something that can’t be reduced to a bunch of 1s and 0s. Once Jackman stops feeding his robot commands, and instead inspires it with the prowess of his own ringside shadow boxing, nothing can stand in their way.

While the Drone Racing League might not share all of Real Steel‘s philosophic ambitions, it certainly seems just as captivated by the idea of sports with robots. This fall, the league, which has existed for over a year and bills itself as the sport of the future, will host a slew of races that will later be edited and aired weekly on ESPN.

The robot component in drone racing is less terminator than Johnny 5.

According to The New York Times, 25 pilots will compete using stripped down quadcopters decked out in LED lights across 3D obstacle courses at speeds up to 80 mph. Cameras mounted on the drones themselves, linked to a first-person display strapped to the pilot’s face, will help them navigate these marathons remotely while also making the sport spectator-friendly.

The courses themselves would be right at home in the post-industrial malaise of Real Steel: an abandoned Los Angeles mall, a paper mill in Ohio, a laboratory in New York, and an auto plant in Detroit. They’re large spaces delineated by concrete and steel, some abandoned, some not, each with its own unique story to tell about the arc of technology between the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st.


And like Real Steel, the robot component in drone racing is less terminator than Johnny 5. In many ways, it’s the natural progression of Battle Bots, a series of televised competitions where people weld some steel to a set of wheels and then ram one another’s creations until somebody’s mangled survivor can be declared the winner.

A remnant of the mid-90s, ABC recently tried to breath new life into sport by, among other things, adding drones. Usually this means quadcopters spitting fire from above with middling results, but the spectacle is enough. First drones helped the government destroy its enemies, then they started delivering burritos and Wi-Fi, and now they’re here to battle and race one another for our amusement.

The word “drone” in these contexts is often a misnomer.

Of course, the word “drone” in these contexts is often a misnomer. The quadcopters in the drone racing league are controlled by humans, as are the ones raining down hellfire on various people abroad, at least that is what we’re told. Instead, the label “drone” connotes a certain ambition toward, or dread of, a future where the software is complex enough that these little flight machines can pilot themselves.

And this is perhaps the most interesting thing about the Drone Racing League and its promise to bring a sport that sits precariously between virtual reality and analog racing into our homes every Thursday night. Not the novelty of competing first-person rave shows tunneling through the crevices of yesterday’s America so much as the sneaking suspicion that this is only a quaint first step toward a world where humans are no longer the pilots.

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