How Drone Racing League Is Integrating Brands Into Its Races

Swatch and Lockheed Martin are working with DRL

Drone Racing League is a growing sport where humans race drones through creatively built tracks. Drone Racing League
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Drone racing on its own is already a pretty thrilling sport to watch. The vehicles can go from 0 to 80 miles per hour in less than a second, zipping around corners in creatively built—and incredibly complex—obstacle courses. However, that also means any types of brand sponsorships are going to have to be more than a little creative if they’re going to catch the attention of the ever-elusive audience of e-sports fans and others.

Drone Racing League—a 3-year-old company based in New York City that organizes and hosts drone races in various cities—has been rapidly growing both its audience base and its advertiser base by integrating marketing directly into the races themselves.

Speaking at Adweek’s Challenger Brands event last month, DRL CEO Nicholas Horbaczewski said the league’s fans are “super sensitive” to traditional advertising.

“If I put a billboard up at one of our races, they will throw up all over it,” he said. “They find it offensive to be advertised to. We get really resounding feedback from them about the degree to which they don’t want to feel like brands are talking at them through our sport.”

This creates both an opportunity to be creative, and a risk for anyone who insists on being bland. However, because each level is designed from scratch, DRL is able to build brand messaging into obstacles and other areas along the mile-long tracks.

For example, for Swatch, DRL built the Swatch Gate, which is a large watch that drones fly through in a pivotal part of the race. Because it’s an area that often results in crashes or in pilots losing their lead, the gate has become a place of focus for fans. For Allianz, the insurance company, DRL created an iris near the finish line. However, the opening in which the drones need to fly gets smaller and smaller, which makes it harder for those that are behind to safely make it through.

“I’ll have fans come up to me after a race and passionately debate the placing of the Swatch gate in this event,” Horbaczewski said. “And if you’re a Swatch executive, that’s exactly what you want. They are engaging with your brand, but they’re not getting that offensive pushback.”

DRL’s brand integrations are far different than Swatch. For example, last year, the company partnered with Cox Communications to have a DRL pilot fly through his mother’s house to promote Cox’s WiFi while not hitting antiques, fish bowls or other items. DRL then re-created the house inside of its pilot-training video game, which fans could then download and virtually fly through themselves. The cross-platform campaign included TV spots.

Perhaps one of the most ambitious brand integrations for DRL to date will happen later this year, when the league partners with Lockheed Martin on a race to pit human pilots against drones flown by artificial intelligence. Participating teams that build their own AI drones will compete for $2 million in prizes, while recruiting university students, technologies and drone fans to innovate within the realms of anonymous flying.

So far, more than 250 research universities have applied, and DRL picked the top nine, which could help to attract engineers to Lockheed Martin rather than newer competitors such as SpaceX. Each team gets paired with a Lockheed Martin mentor, and $250,000 will be awarded for the first team to beat a human-piloted drone. However, the AI drones will also compete against each other.

“It’s a really exciting thing and will actually be a pivotal moment in drone technology design,” Horbaczewski said, “similar to what the DARPA challenge did for self-driving cars.”

@martyswant Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.