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Is drone racing the next bastion of innovation?

Drone maker Draganfly partnering with Drone Racing League to test new applications

Drones whiz around a Drone Racing League course outfitted with neon-draped obstacles (Photo: Drone Racing League)

Neon lights. A labyrinth of obstacles. Socially distanced, goggle-wearing athletes. With much of the sporting world put on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic, a new global sport emerged from the shadows, and you’ve probably never seen anything like it.

Drone racing is very real, and it existed before the pandemic, with the sport’s premier league, the Drone Racing League (DRL), launching in 2015. But COVID-19 has taken it to new heights –– the DRL now boasts ​​over 250 million fans worldwide who tune in to watch bespectacled pilots fly drones through dazzling mazes of luminescent obstacles.

The scene at the DRL’s 2021-22 World Championship Season race at Allianz Field in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Photo: Drone Racing League)

But now the DRL is more than just a professional sports league. In partnership with drone manufacturer Draganfly (NASDAQ: DPRO), the league is launching DRL Labs, which will use drone racing as a vehicle to test next-generation drone technology like AI, automation and vital intelligence sensors.

Draganfly is one of the longest-running drone companies in the world, with more than two decades of innovation in the industry. The company manufactured its first drone in 1996, and by 1999 it had released the first-ever commercial quadrotor UAV, which to this day is still one of the most popular drone models.

Since then Draganfly’s drones have been used by search-and-rescue organizations, highway patrols, forensic investigators, sheriff’s departments and a host of other groups for a variety of humanitarian and public safety applications. You can even find a Draganfly drone at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, where the Draganflyer X4-ES, the first drone ever credited with saving a person’s life, sits on display.

“We’re really, really committed to security and education and building an ecosystem that provides physical world solutions for that whole digital universe that’s unfolding before us,” Draganfly CEO Cameron Chell told Modern Shipper. “So whether that’s through delivery or health care or search and rescue or public safety, these are going to be huge areas of impact where the drones will really be in the forefront.”

A Draganfly quadcopter drone makes a pick-up. (Photo: Draganfly)

Draganfly may be an old company — as far as drone manufacturers go at least — but that doesn’t mean it can’t learn new tricks. Chell made that very clear by signing on to a multiyear partnership with DRL, positioning the company for the future.

“For one, we think [the partnership] will help commercialize,” he explained. “Many of these products that we’ve innovated will also allow us to highlight products in a setting where our commercial customers can see the applicability and understand the rigors which we put our innovations through.”

In the DRL, Chell saw an opportunity to use drone racing as a way to put new drone technology in the spotlight and accelerate its adoption. The league boasts a number of corporate sponsors with a vested interest in drones, such as T-Mobile with its 5G drone tech, as well as a number of media partners like Twitter and NBCSN that can amplify the innovations coming out of DRL Labs.

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“All of this allows us to highlight new initiatives, potentially like building the world’s fastest drone or making sense-and-avoid technology or incorporating some of our Vital Intelligence technology — that being the ability for drones to read vital signs,” Chell said.

The DRL plans to implement Draganfly’s Vital Intelligence technology, which will use cameras to track the in-race heart and respiratory rates of pilots, but that’s just one application. Draganfly also plans on testing sense-and-avoid technology, a drone communication network and even AI drones that will compete in races against human pilots.

“[DRL pushes] the edge of innovation. So they’ve got some of the best pilots in the world that are pushing these drones to the limit, and not just the airframes and the engineering of the drone, but the communications around them,” Chell explained.

But it doesn’t stop there. Perhaps the most cutting-edge project promised by DRL Labs is digital twinning technology, which uses a drone equipped with lidar to recreate real-life locations in digital spaces (digital twins) for testing purposes. It’s essentially a metaverse for drones, and it can be used by pilots to train for flight missions, mapping missions, engineering missions and much more.

All of these innovations and more will come out of DRL Labs, and they’ll be presented to the entire world on a high-octane stage.

A heat of racing drones prepares for launch. (Photo: Drone Racing League)

“Competition is a crucible for accelerated innovation, and DRL is a sport that can inspire new technology developments that go beyond our racing circuit. DRL Labs will be the innovation arm of DRL, where we get to work with partners like Draganfly to iterate around new technology that will advance our sport, reimagine sports entertainment, and make a significant impact on broader industries,” Ari Mark, senior vice president and head of partner relationships for DRL, told Modern Shipper in an email. “Specifically, you’ll see DRL and Draganfly working around autonomy, next generation sensors and artificial intelligence to contribute to various sectors like agriculture, industrial inspections, security, mapping and surveying, disaster relief and more.”

Draganfly has become increasingly invested in bridging the gap between the digital and the physical. Last month, the company signed an exclusive $9 million manufacturing agreement with educational technology company Digital Dream Labs (DDL) to produce companion drones for its Cozmo desktop robot.

That collaboration will enable students to blend together physical and virtual educational experiences using interactive, hands-on technology. According to Chell, Draganfly’s drones will help people navigate a future that appears to blur the lines between the real and the digital.

“It’s programmable, it’s AI based and it will allow students to actually develop many of their own programs, interact with other people that have companion drones as well as the Cozmo drone and really give people an education that crosses between this rushing out of the digital world alongside the actual world,” he said.

Over the next few years, Draganfly will work with both DDL and the DRL and hopes to innovate the next generation of autonomy, sensor technology and AI to help drones contribute more to efforts in disaster relief, transportation, delivery and more.

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Jack Daleo

Jack is a staff writer for FreightWaves and Modern Shipper covering topics like last mile delivery and e-commerce fulfillment. He studied at Northwestern University, majoring in journalism with a certificate in integrated marketing communications. Previously, Jack has written for Backpacker Magazine and enjoys travel, the outdoors, and all things basketball.