Imagine six drones in flight, going head-to-head on a race course. Piloted by individuals using elaborate remote controls and wearing virtual-reality goggles, the drones reach speeds as fast as 80 mph as they weave their way around vertical flags, dip under track hurdles and whiz through circular gates while they complete lap after lap.
Now imagine all that happening indoors within the confines of a hockey rink.
That’s the vision Everett native Brian Deller had when he came up with the idea of the Pro Aerial League, and that’s what spectators will be able to see when the Pro Aerial League makes its full debut Saturday at Xfinity Arena.
“I’m stoked, it’s great having it here in Snohomish County,” Deller, 34, said about having the league’s first full event in Everett. “I’m super excited, we literally could not find a better location.
“There will be drones exploding, I guarantee that.”
Drone racing is the newest player in the world of technology-based entertainment. The sport can be seen on television as one of the sport’s pioneering leagues, the Drone Racing League, has events shown on cable channels.
Deller, who co-founded the Pro Aerial League with Federal Way’s Ken Allison and Renton’s Scott Whiteker, was working in the technology-based entertainment field when he helped organize GE2, an e-gaming expo held last December at the CenturyLink Field Event Center. While the event included everything from esports to robotics to virtual reality, drone racing was the big hit, and Deller saw opportunity.
“When the drone racing happened everyone stopped what they were doing and watched,” Deller said. “After the event we thought there was something there.
“About six months ago we honed in on a gap in the market,” Deller added. “Everyone is an individual racer, they’re competing for who’s the best pilot, there’s tons of leagues that do that — the DRL has huge post-production TV shows. But it’s not fitting in with what’s going on in the space. We wanted to build a team-based drone racing league that was focused on the spectator.”
Therefore, Deller, Allison and Whiteker combined to create the Pro Aerial League. Two things set the Pro Aerial League apart from other drone racing competitions.
First, it’s a team competition instead of an individual competition. Six teams will take part in Saturday’s event — because of bandwidth restrictions six is the maximum number of drones that can take part in a single race — with six pilots on each team. Among the races scheduled for Saturday is a relay race, which will force teams to perform pit stops to change out batteries as the drones can fly a maximum of two minutes on a single charge.
Second, the course, which will be contained within the hockey rink at Xfinity Arena, is designed so that the drones can be easily watched by spectators.
“Traditionally, everyone is making the courses difficult, building it for the pilot and not for the spectators,” Deller explained. “As a result people were crashing drones all the time, and it gets expensive. So we decided to flip the model. We made the courses easier, which made it easier to follow for the spectators. Then by making it multiple laps it will be more of a race.”
The pilots taking part are experienced drone racers, mostly from Washington, Oregon and Idaho. The league held a qualifier two weeks ago in Snohomish to ensure the quality of the participants, with a draft also being held to create the teams of six. The pilot pool includes a handful who have competed in the Drone Racing League.
The drones being used by the Pro Aerial League are the Riot 250R, a spec-class racing drone built by Boise-based Thrust-UAV. Each competitor will be issued two drones for the competition.
And for the fans there will be plenty of between-race entertainment available. Among the activities on hand will be laser tag, dodgeball, virtual reality, Nerf wars and drone simulators. Fans will also be able to tune goggles into the frequency of pilots during races to get the ride-along experience.
The Pro Aerial League held a successful small event at Portland International Raceway in early July to serve as a test run. But Deller and his associates are tempering their expectations for Saturday’s full debut.
“Our expectations are reasonable,” Deller said. “People don’t know a lot about this yet, and we’re OK with that. We timed this with Funko’s grand opening and the Special Olympics, so we know there will be a lot of people downtown. Our objective is to capture some fantastic footage. We’re bringing a production team up from Los Angeles for that. We want to eventually build up to having a live stream and make a production TV show out of it, with the pilots at the center of it.
“We’re still finding our way,” Deller concluded. “But I’m confident in what we’ve put together.”
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