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Future Sports with Robots, Drones and Race Cars

One of the great mysteries of the 21st century is why the heck the Transformers franchise has lasted so long, especially when it once starred Shia LeBeouf. The answer, of course, is really quite simple: It features giant robots smashing each other to smithereens. Not exactly a box office smash, the movie “Real Steel” was a mashup of Rocky and Transformers, further fueling our desires to watch machines dismember one another in the ring. Sports technology featuring warring robots isn’t just science fiction. It’s one of burgeoning number of technology-driven sports that also includes speed-racing drones and self-driving race cars.

MegaBots and Robot Combat

Robot combat is actually a fairly mature sport compared to some of the relatively new sports technology competitions that have emerged in the last few years. Some of the first battles were televised in the early 1990s. The shows sported names like Battlebots, Robot Wars and Robotica. Today, there are at least two leagues—Robot Fighting League and Fighting Robot Association—that provide standards for most competitions, such as prohibiting certain weapons like untethered projectiles (aka, missiles) and high-powered lasers. (Where’s the fun in that?) Most competitions involve remote-controlled robots, ranging from toaster-sized to refrigerator-sized, throwing everything at each other but the kitchen sink.

Now an Oakland-based startup wants to take robot combat to a new level. MegaBots took in $2.4 million in Seed money last year, followed by another $3.85 million in debt financing to realize its dream: Pitting seven-ton, 15-foot-tall, human-piloted humanoid robots against each other in a Terminator version of the Olympics. Check out the trailer below to their web-series showing the creation of their fighting machine:

The company says that one day MegaBots will “fire cannonball-sized paintballs at each other at speeds of over 120 miles per hour. As the robots battle, armor panels shear off and litter the field, smoke and sparks pour out of the chassis, massive robotic limbs tear off, and robots crumple to the ground until only one is left standing.” Sounds like a great first date to us.

Right now the field of competition is pretty limited. The company threw down the gauntlet to Suidobashi Heavy Industry, which has built the mecha robot called Kuratas. The Japanese company agreed to the duel but a venue and date haven’t been set. In other words, don’t invest in season tickets for now.

Drone Racing League

Drones aren’t just for annoying your neighbors and eliminating terrorists in covert operations. Drone racing is a thing in sports technology.

The Drone Racing League is one of several startups trying to establish itself as the NFL of drone racing. The New York-based company is certainly picking up the financing and endorsements to make a run at dominance. Last year, it announced about $20 million in investments. MarketWatch reported in January that the company had raised more than $8 million in funding, including an investment from Miami Dolphin’s owner Stephen Ross’s venture-capital firm RSE Ventures. Other investors included Hearst Ventures, CAA Ventures and Muse lead singer Matthew Bellamy. In September, Sports Daily News said DRL grabbed another $12 million in financing, led by RSE Ventures and Lux Capital. Fast Company named DRL is one of the top ten most innovative companies in sports.

Drone racing is pretty much what it sounds like: Pilots wearing VR-like headsets, which provide a drone’s eye view, navigate custom-built drones through a neon-lit obstacle course, with monster truck-like commentary following the action at 80 miles per hour.

Bud Light has reportedly signed on as a major sponsor, and DRL has deals with major networks like ESPN and Sky Sports to broadcast races. In December, DRL signed a three-year licensing deal with Toy State to produce branded racing drones for kids. Earlier this year, the company announced a multi-year sponsorship deal with the insurer Allianz, according to Fast Company. There were an estimated 28 million U.S. broadcast viewers of DRL in 2016.

Take a look at the action below:

Rest of the Drone Racing Pack

DRL isn’t the only game in drone racing sports technology. Other leagues include Drone Sports Association, International Drone Racing Association and the Aerial Sports League. Aerial Sports League is even opening a purpose-built Drone Sports World in San Francisco where anyone can try and pilot a racing drone, MarketWatch reported last summer. Financials for these other leagues weren’t readily available.

In a separate report, MarketWatch noted that interest in drone racing has sparked an uptick in drone sales. For example, Horizon Hobby, known for its radio-controlled products, produces one of the few purpose-built drone racers. Most of the drones currently in competition are custom-built jobs. (A private company founded in 1985 and based in Champaign, Illinois, Horizon Hobby was acquired in 2014 by its own chief executive officer, along with investors Armory Capital and Mill City Capital.) Some of the top drone makers such as DJI—a Chinese unicorn with rumors of a 2017 IPO swirling about—has so far resisted the idea of marketing a racing drone. One of DJI’s chief competitors, Canadian startup Yuneec International, also claimed to have no plans to build racing drones, though it recently released a first-person view headset retailing for $295 like those used by racing pilots.

Perhaps we’ll need to add drone pilot to our best jobs of the future post.

Need for Self-Driving Speed

Robocars are electric vehicles that use AI rather than a human to pilot a racecourse.

For those whose need for speed involves driving endless loops around a race track, Elon Musk startup Roborace has you covered with self-driving electric race cars.

Backed by London-based investment fund Kinetik for an undisclosed amount, Roborace has developed an autonomous electric vehicle that relies on artificial intelligence to navigate an urban race course. The Robocar was designed by Daniel Simon, an automotive futurist who creates vehicles for Hollywood movies such as “Tron Legacy” and “Oblivion.”

Here are the specs on Robocar from Roborace:

It has four 300kW motors, 540kW battery, is predominantly made of carbon fiber and will be capable of speeds up to 199 mph. The car uses a number of technologies to ‘drive’ itself including five lidars, two radars, 18 ultrasonic sensors, two optical speed sensors, six AI cameras, GNSS (GPS) positioning and is powered by Nvidia’s Drive PX2 brain, capable of up to 24 trillion AI operations per second.

The idea is for different teams to compete in the FIA Formula E Championship for electric vehicles, using their own AI platforms to pilot the cars. Sporting identical hardware, the competition becomes one of let the best AI win. But don’t worry, Billy Bob NASCAR fan, there will still be plenty of crashes. Denis Sverdlov, the man behind the $500 million investment firm Kinetik, promises Fortune that some races will feature a “fight mode” for more aggressive driving.

Conclusion

Sports technology applied to the wide world of robots, drones and cars seems to be a niche category for now without a clear leader emerging. There are even robotic soccer players, expected to be World Cup-ready by 2050, and robotic NFL tackling dummies that look like the Dr. Who bad guy Daleks (if only they shrieked “exterminate” as they chased down a running back).

Of course, you never know what will catch fire with the public. Who thought Niantic, creator of Pokemon Go, would jump into unicorn territory and create a global phenomenon based on bad Japanese cartoon characters? Perhaps a battle royale between MegaBots and a swarm of racing drones is just what the sporting world is waiting for. It’s got to be more interesting than cricket.

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