Fotis Georgiadis
Mar 7 · 9 min read

Autonomous drone technology is creating the next “Deep Blue” moment, and it’s going to change sports forever.

In 1997, IBM’s “Deep Blue” computer defeated grandmaster, Gary Kasparov, in a match of chess — a historic moment, marking the end of an era where humans could defeat machines playing complex strategy games. Today, AI bots can defeat humans in nearly every digital game we know, and while we’re starting to see some AI-proof-of concept progress in motorsports, ping pong and basketball, AI doesn’t come close to beating humans in real-life sports.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Nicholas Horbaczewski, the CEO & Founder of the Drone Racing League (DRL), the global, professional drone racing circuit that’s been watched by more than 57 million fans on top sports networks like ESPN, Sky and ProSieben in 90 countries worldwide. Internationally recognized for building the Sport of The Future, Nicholas has been named one of Entrepreneur Magazine’s 50 Most Innovative Entrepreneurs, selected to Crain’s 40 Under 40 list, recognized by Fast Company for founding one of the Most Innovative Companies in the world, and awarded by Ad Age for creating the Startup to Watch.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Before founding DRL, I worked across the media, tech and sport sectors, ultimately inspiring me to build a company that would combine these three passions. I had co-founded Leeden Media, an entertainment company for feature-length independent films, developed an interest in multicopters while I was the Chief Information Officer of ADS, a distributor of advanced hardware to the US government, and helped grow Tough Mudder, the largest mass participation running event series in the world, to over 60 global events and $100mm in revenue during my time there as the Chief Revenue Officer.

In 2015, I left Tough Mudder with the goal to start my own company. I was playing with a few ideas at the time, including creating a new pro drone racing sport, and whenever I’d talk to someone about the different startup concepts, their eyes would immediately light up when I mentioned pro drone racing. They’d start comparing the sport to Star Wars’ pod racing or their favorite video game from growing up, and pitching ideas on how to develop it, what it could look like, where the races could be held — and it was through those conversations that I decided to build DRL.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I’ll never forget the moment when we watched a DRL racing drone complete the first lap in our first-ever race. It was December 2015, and thanks to real estate mogul and our incredible investor, Steve Ross who owns the Miami Dolphins, we were hosting the 2016 Season’s Level 1 in the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami and getting ready to film it for a post-event release date in the new year. After months of innovating new technology, hand-building hundreds of high-speed racing drones from scratch, and designing a 3D, video-game inspired race course, this was our first moment to see if all of our hard work to create an entirely new sport would actually pay off. Watching the drone zip around the arena through the large scale neon-colored gates made us realize DRL was going to work.

Can you tell us about the “Bleeding edge” technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?

We recently launched our new Artificial Intelligence Robotic Racing (AIRR) Circuit to help develop the first professional autonomous racing drone. In partnership with Lockheed Martin, we’re recruiting teams of the best and the brightest engineers to design an AI framework, capable of flying a drone without any human intervention, and compete in AIRR for a chance to win more than $2 million.

AIRR participants will pit their AI drones against each other and compete on the same complex, three-dimensional courses that our elite human-pilots fly in the DRL Allianz World Championship Season — enabling us to compare the times of the AI and human-operated drones, measure the gap in performance between man and machine and track how quickly it closes. By participating in AIRR, teams’ knowledge and ideas will contribute directly toward the future of autonomous transportation, delivery, disaster relief, and even space exploration. Anyone interested in participating in AIRR can apply here: HeroX.com/AlphaPilot

How do you think this might change the world?

Autonomous drone technology is creating the next “Deep Blue” moment, and it’s going to change sports forever.

In 1997, IBM’s “Deep Blue” computer defeated grandmaster, Gary Kasparov, in a match of chess — a historic moment, marking the end of an era where humans could defeat machines playing complex strategy games. Today, AI bots can defeat humans in nearly every digital game we know, and while we’re starting to see some AI-proof-of concept progress in motorsports, ping pong and basketball, AI doesn’t come close to beating humans in real-life sports.

What will that moment be like when an AI powered robot defeats a human in real sports? What will it feel like to watch history be made, to experience the end of the era of human dominance in real sports? We’re excited to find out with AIRR.

Drone racing is unique; it sits on a blurry line between to the digital and real — which makes AIRR the perfect testing ground to expedite head-to-head AI vs. human performance. It will be a defining moment when AIRR introduces the first AI robot to defeat a human in real-life sports, showcasing an initial step towards a future when autonomous systems will significantly impact the physical (not just the digital) world — such as being able to perform the often-dangerous disaster-relief efforts, like rescuing families from hurricanes and fighting forest fires while keeping service men and women out of harm’s way.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

I’m in the camp of people that think AI (including autonomy) will have a massive impact on humanity, maybe the biggest impact of anything we’ve ever invented. And Hollywood has already dreamed up (and made photo-real in summer blockbusters) dozens of cautionary tales about AI. It’s so easy to go to the absolute extreme cases with this kind of technology — and, frankly, any new cutting edge technology; if it were 15 years ago, Black Mirror would probably do an episode dramatizing how cell phones are the end of privacy rather than predicting their true role in car-accidents, one in four of which are caused by texting and driving.

So when it comes to drawbacks for AI, I think rather than focusing on grandiose, far-fetched hypotheticals of it taking over the world, we should consider realistic, nearterm challenges — like how advanced autonomous flight technology could potentially make cross-border smuggling easier — and then strategize new ways we can protect against those things.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?

DRL is proud to be at the forefront of the development of groundbreaking drone technology — from custom-building high-speed racing drones as seen on ESPN to setting the Guinness World Record for the fastest racing drone on the planet — and we believe AI is an important part of the future of drone technology. We’re excited to unveil AIRR to ignite fierce competition between teams of the most talented AI engineers and researchers from around the world to develop the fastest unmanned drone.

What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?

To accelerate AI innovation, we need the best minds in AI to work and solve tough engineering problems together. Creating a new generation of thought leaders in the field, AIRR will recruit teams of top AI technologists to push the boundaries of edge computing and autonomous flight in a fun, fair, sporting environment.

What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?

To recruit applicants for AIRR, we co-launched AlphaPilot, an open innovation challenge, with Lockheed Martin. Hosted on the crowdsourcing platform, HeroX, AlphaPilot is currently helping us to connect with a diverse community of students, coders and AI engineers from around the world and discover the most creative ideas around autonomous drone technology.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

DRL has an incredible roster of world-class investors, including Lux Capital, RSE Ventures, Sky and CAA, hailing from the tech, sports and media spaces, who’ve helped us transform an underground hobby of drone racing into the Sport of the Future. I’m particularly grateful to Adam Goulburn, a general partner at Lux Capital, who, in the very early stages of DRL — when we were just a couple of guys working out of a WeWork, trying to build a racing drone that could actually fly — happened to walk by our office and asked what we were doing. This serendipitous encounter ultimately led to Lux becoming DRL’s largest investor.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

As we’re committed to developing the next generation of drone pilots and engineers, we love hosting collaborative and engaging STEM sessions with students, led by our tech engineers and pro pilots. This year, we’ve taught boys and girls ages 12–18 all the way from Mexico to the Middle East how to build and fly FPV racing drones. To watch the excitement of the students when they put on a pair of goggles and see exactly what the drone they just helped build sees is incredibly rewarding, and we’re always looking to help them explore new ways to experience the groundbreaking drone industry. They’re the innovators of the future who will continue to disrupt the technology, media and sports landscape in the years to come.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

I had the pleasure of sharing five of the things I wish someone told me before I started with you, Yitizi, for this Thrive Global story, and a year later, I still wish someone told me those things from the get-go.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

At DRL, we love bringing people of all backgrounds together through the amazing sport of drone racing, which is open to people of all ages and genders, crosses language and cultural barriers, and uniquely teaches participants about engineering, robotics, and computer programing. To inspire community, inclusion, and drone tech education, we created the DRL Simulator, which uses real-life drone physics to teach hundreds of thousands of fans around the globe how to fly FPV racing drones. We even use the DRL Simulator to recruit pilots into the league through our annual esports tournament, the Swatch DRL Tryouts, which transforms gamers — who may never have ever touched a drone in real life — into pro pilots overnight. Anyone interested in battling it out for a professional DRL contract should download the DRL Simulator on Steam and enter the Tryouts.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My college roommate’s grandma used to say: “To complain is to volunteer.” I love this quote and think it’s a really good motto in business, encouraging you to not just point out the problems, and but rather, go ahead and solve them. At DRL, we’re a team of doers, and when we see something that can be bigger and better (as we did with an underground hobby of drone racing) we’ll make it happen — even if it means inventing new cutting edge technology and hand-building 90 MPH racing drones from scratch.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

In just three years, DRL has reached tens of millions fans, developed custom drone technology, and produced all races and content in-house to build the sport of the future. Imagine what we’ll do next.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

We’d love to engage with all of you on social. Feel free to follow us on:

Twitter: @DroneRaceLeague & @NicholasDRL

Instagram: @TheDroneRacingLeague

Facebook: @The Drone Racing League

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Fotis Georgiadis

Written by

Passionate about bringing emerging technologies to the market

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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