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Epic Race Course in Old Hawthorne Mall

It’s a mechanical bird… It’s a robotic Tinkerbell…

It’s a racing drone?

The Drone Racing League remade the vacant Hawthorne Plaza mall this weekend into an unmanned-aerial-vehicle flight track. Twelve accomplished pilots with skills honed in informal racing groups meeting in parking garages and empty lots strapped on First Person View goggles, gripped their specially engineered flight controllers, and zipped through obstacles in the ruined 1970s complex.

The “L.A.Pocalypse” course, winding through the abandoned mall’s cavernous graffitied chambers and broken-down escalators covered in litter is the second professional competition produced by the league. The first was at Miami’s NFL Sun Life stadium last month.

This course was enhanced with reproductions of a destroyed Hollywood sign, a torn and burned 5 Freeway sign, and other ruined Los Angeles landmarks. Pilots who combine the most agile maneuvering with fast speeds will advance to the next event, which has not yet been announced.

FORMULA 1 IN THE AIR

The DRL engineers its drones to be “the size of dinner plates going 80 miles per hour,” said League founder, Nicholas Horbaczewski. It hopes to be the Formula 1 of unmanned aerial vehicle racing.

“Drone racing has just exploded globally. It’s really big in Australia and Japan. It’s mainly friends meeting up in parking lots, but there’s real competition going on,” Horbaczewski said. “We have Formula 1-quality drones made by our own engineering team. It takes a lot of thought to turn small drones whizzing around a field into a professional setup. We put a lot of work into the course design, drone designs and sports cinematography.”

Professional videos of the Hawthorne races, held in rounds of four drones at a time, will be made publicly available next month.

CRASHES EXPECTED

The drones are made of 10-inch rectangular carbon-fiber boxes carrying circuit boards with their patented technology. They’re fitted with propellers, blinged out with bright LED lights, and sporting high-definition cameras that provide a nearly instantaneous feed to pilots.

Designed for durability, speed, and agility, they’re nevertheless expected to crash. That’s why each pilot gets a bevy of drones to run through in each race.

“As a kid, I always wanted to be a pilot or a bird in the sky,” said Steve Zoumas, the winner of the Miami competition who is better known in drone-racing circles as Zoomas. “I grew up doing Motocross but nothing feels like what this feels like.”

The league’s First Person View goggles broadcast a live video feed for the pilots as they maneuvered the flying vehicles through fluorescent-lighted gates — red and green signifies enter and exit while blue and yellow indicate left and right. The goal is to rack up as many points as possible by speedily swerving through all the gates.

“You take chances you wouldn’t take in other sports,” said Zoumas, who lives in New York. “My strategy is to always get out in front and put pressure on my opponents.”

NOT LIKE VIDEO GAMES

Conrad Miller, a pilot from Boise, Idaho known as Furadi, said he began racing drones because it gives him a similar experience to riding motorcycles, one of his favorite hobbies.

“I like going fast and trying to control the machine,” said Miller. “For me, flying drones relates more to motorcycle riding than video games. When you put the First Person View goggles on, it’s terrifying. Your heart rate jumps through the roof. It totally takes you out of your body.”

Though it feels thrilling and the “L.A.Pocalyse” setting appeared dangerous, the DRL race was actually very safe and unobtrusive, said Horbaczewski, who founded the league last year and has raised $8 million from investors including Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and Hearst Ventures. He previously worked as chief revenue officer of Tough Mudder mud-run obstacle courses.

“We know exactly where the drones are flying. There’s no privacy issues, no safety issues, no regulatory issues,” he said. “It’s all the fun parts of drones but none of the scary parts, which is great because I know there’s a lot of controversy around drones. But this is a really pure use of drones in an entertaining way.”

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