A high-profile league of professional drone racers will host its first event with pre-programmed, self-flying vehicles at the University of Central Florida next month.

The Drone Racing League will debut Artificial Intelligence Robotic Racing at 5 p.m. on Oct. 8 indoors at UCF’s 325,000-square-foot Addition Financial Arena. The race will be broadcast on NBC-TV.

The competition, featuring $2 million in prizes, is backed by Lockheed Martin, which has a sizable presence in Central Florida.

Drone Racing League CEO Nicholas Horbaczewski said autonomous drone racing is growing in popularity.

“There is that moment where you realize there is no human involvement in it,” he said. “It’s thrilling when it works. When it doesn’t work, it’s spectacular.”

Most drone racing is still remotely piloted with devices similar to those that control toy cars or planes.

In autonomous racing, the human involvement ends long before a vehicle races through the course.

Programmers place code on chips within the custom-built drones that inform the aircraft how to react when faced with obstacles.

These instructions take into account guidance, navigation and control algorithms — that is, the components used by self-driving vehicles.

The drones, about the size of a dinner plate, will then zip through a flashy looking, neon-lit course in a time trial, with the vehicle that finishes fastest declared the winner.

These high-powered vehicles, which sometimes accelerate to speeds as fast as 90 mph within a second, will hover, fly and navigate to a finish line successfully — or not.

“We brought the spirit of human drone racing to a mainstream audience,” Horbaczewski said. “Now, we are evolving that.”

The league, which started last year with a grant from Lockheed Martin, will pit nine teams from across the world in a series of competitions.

Keith Lynn, who oversees Lockheed’s AlphaPilot program, said artificial intelligence plays a key role in controlling the vehicles — as it plays an increasingly more important role in defense industry products.

“This (technology) is going to touch many lives,” he said. “In a race, you instantly know the winner by watching it. I couldn’t think of a better way to bring A.I. into the living room of millions of people worldwide. This sport is maturing at a rate where it’s starting to hit Main Street.”

The autonomous vehicle circuit formed from an initial competition that saw more than 400 teams from across the world submit vehicle plans.

It’s a product of the once-obscure hobby gaining more mainstream momentum, said Garrett Hausman, an aerospace engineering student at UCF who is an intern with Lockheed Martin.

“This will just bring more exposure to drones for the area and it will just further the presence here,” said Hausman, who said he lost his first drone in a neighbor’s yard when he was in high school. “We have been working with UCF to get more races here. This opens the door.”

Drone racing has been an underground-style sport for nearly a decade, originating in parking lots and fields before moving into arenas and more-formal venues.

The Drone Racing League, which became the sport’s first professional organization in 2015, has brought fast-paced action into arenas.

“It’s like being in the cockpit of a jet flying through the hallways of a stadium,” he said. “If you’re into esports, you get it right away because it’s like a real-life video game.”

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©2019 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

Visit The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.) at www.OrlandoSentinel.com

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