“Each of our races usually has about 60 entrants,” says Toru Takahashi, one of four organizers in charge of JDL, which holds a series of competitions around the country over the course of a season to crown an overall champion and was founded in November 2016. “Those entrants are divided into three classes — open, expert and pro — and for each class we have a qualifying competition, semifinals and a final.
“Other racing organizations already existed, but they weren’t run very well,” Takahashi says. “The pilots would enter but the races themselves weren’t much fun to compete in. We wanted to provide something that the pilots themselves would enjoy taking part in.”
JDL competitions involve pilots racing their drones in groups of three around a gated course set up on an outdoor field. As batteries can only sustain two or three minutes’ flight, races are short. But the frantic action, liberally sprinkled with high-speed crashes, makes for an intense spectacle.
“Drones can fly and everyone wants to be able to fly,” says virtual pilot Tetsu Kitagawa. “Racing drones can fly fast and with freedom. They are very maneuverable — they can probably fly more freely than a bird can. It’s very exciting and it lets you experience a feeling you’ve never had before.”
Drone racing is not a cheap hobby. A drone itself will likely cost around ¥40,000, with goggles retailing for around the same price. Radio controllers can cost anywhere from ¥30,000 to ¥180,000, and the overall outlay has had a shaping influence on JDL’s demographic.
“It takes money to race drones, so younger people can’t afford it,” Takahashi says. “Even if they want to get involved, they can’t. So it’s mostly centered around people in their 30s and 40s who have a bit of money to spend. You get some elementary school students whose parents help out with the costs, but we don’t get many university students or other people in their 20s.”
Despite its prohibitive cost, drone racing is able to accommodate participants in ways that other sports cannot. JDL organizer Daisuke Baba took it up after he shattered his leg competing in a Supercross motorbike race, leaving him unable to move for a six-month period that cost him his job as a truck driver.
“If you can see and you can use your hands, you can race a drone just the same as anyone else,” Baba says. “I’d love more people with disabilities to come to our races. We want to create an environment where they feel comfortable racing. We have a guy who comes to our races who can’t hear, so when the race starts we tap him on the shoulder and he races just like the others.”
JDL offers a ¥1 million prize for the pilot who finishes top of the overall season standings, but it is far from being a professional organization. Only a handful of pilots in Japan make their living solely from drone racing, and the sport remains a niche activity among a small dedicated community.
At the other end of the spectrum is Drone Racing League. Launched in 2016 in the United States, the visually slick and fully professional circuit is broadcast on a host of major channels worldwide, including ESPN and Sky Sports, and boasts sponsorship deals with brands such as BMW, Swatch and Allianz.
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