The Air Up There Podcast
Ready, Set, Drone Racing!

Season 6, Episode 7

Do you have a need for speed? Then this is the episode for you! Tune in and discover the innovative science behind the Drone Racing League, a high-speed competition that is using first person view flight to create a new era in sports. Chief Operating Officer Ashley Ellefson joins us to share insights about the intricate technology and engineering that propels the drone racing competitions into a futuristic league of their own. 

Get to know why millions of people gather worldwide to witness the Drone Racing League’s fast paced events and find out how you can get involved and even become a drone racing pilot yourself. Plus, Ashley gives us a sneak peek at how artificial intelligence applied to drones could add even more of a rush to the future of this sport.

Learn how the FAA is collaborating with drone industry partners like the Drone Racing League to safely integrate complex drone events into the National Airspace System. 

Make haste and share this episode with colleagues, friends, family and anyone intrigued by this high-tempo and high-tech sport that has paved the way in the world of aerospace sports. 

Meet Our Guest:  
Ashley Ellefson is the Chief Operating Officer at the Drone Racing League, the world’s premier, professional drone racing property, where she oversees the event production, technology and media teams. Honored as a Leaders 40 Under 40 member, Cynopsis Sports Top Women in Sports and Connect Sports Game Changer, she’s helped DRL create a new era of sport through cutting edge technology, world-class media, and event production, bringing high-speed drone racing across real-life and virtual courses. Prior to DRL, she served as the Vice President of New Event Development at Tough Mudder, where she developed and codified all of their event operation standards including health and safety, vendor management, and live event on-site operations.
Disclaimer: Reference in this podcast to any specific commercial product, process, service, manufacturer, company, or trademark does not constitute endorsement or recommendation by the U.S. government, Department of Transportation, or Federal Aviation Administration. As an agency of the U.S. government, the FAA cannot endorse or appear to endorse any specific product or service. 

Ready, Set, Drone Racing!
Ready, Set, Drone Racing!
Audio file

DaiJah Metoyer: What happens when a drone crashes during a race?

Ashley Ellefson: Oh, it’s best part. For everyone except for our engineering team, because they have built 500-600 drones and so, they don't love it when the drones crash. 

DaiJah Metoyer: That’s Ashley Ellefson, the Chief Operating Officer of Drone Racing League, which hosts first person view drone races in stadiums around the world. 

Lucy Jabbour: And she is our guest. We’re your hosts, I’m Lucy Jabbour.

DaiJah Metoyer: And I’m DaiJah Metoyer – and this is The Air Up There!

Various People: This is your captain speaking. The feeling I get when I’m flying is just; you get an adrenaline rush. Seeing something fly is awesome. It’s incredible to be able to fly. Flying airplanes is all I’ve ever wanted to do. I get so excited about aviation, aeronautics, space, engineering, and tech. Like star gazing and just wondering what it would be like to be up there. I just fell in love with it. Stick with your passion and pursue it. Just know you can do it. There is not a room, there is not a cockpit, there is not a place that you don’t belong. There’s certainly a place for everybody in aerospace.

Lucy Jabbour: In this episode, you'll hear us mention Part 107, which are the rules commercial drone pilots need to follow to keep our airspace system and people on the ground safe.   

DaiJah Metoyer: Plus, Part 107 lists the requirements to become an FAA certified Remote Pilot. That includes things like how to fly your drone at night and over people safely. 

DaiJah Metoyer: Can you explain to us a little bit more what drone racing is?

Ashley Ellefson: Yeah, so at its basis it's racing. One of my favorite things is like, you can go super, super deep in the tech and how we build the drones and what the strategy is, and what's the best line. But like, in its simplest form, it's who crosses the finish line first. So, like, you can love all the stats and be really into it, or you can just go and not know anything about it and it's still exciting to watch. Each season we will select 12 pilots and then we build up a really exciting racecourse with gates and lights and different obstacles that they have to maneuver around and then they race to the finish. 

Lucy Jabbour: Can you just take us briefly through a race for people who haven't seen this before? Like what happens how long does this take from start to finish?

Ashley Ellefson: So, the actual races, the heat themselves are 60 seconds. So, it's these really quick fast paced like 60-90 seconds of action, and then we pack a lot of those into an entire event. So, our overall event is about two and a half, three hours. You come on site it's like any event. You go through fan zone. You can make a sign for your favorite pilot. You can get autographs. There's music and DJs and then we have like a big kind of opening ceremony of sorts, where we introduce the pilots. There’s lots of fanfare and pyro. And then at the end we have 6 pilots racing in the finals and then whoever wins the golden heat, which is our final heat of the night is the winner. And then we have a DJ and confetti and an award ceremony where we present a trophy to whoever wins.

Lucy Jabbour: Not just a race, but like a party kind of.

DaiJah Metoyer: Yeah, basically.

Ashley Ellefson: It is a really, really fun event. It's really like family friendly. So, so many kids. I think our last event in Miami there was... I had a story of a kid who was behind one of our staff members, unknowingly, and was like, this is the best day of my life! 

DaiJah Metoyer: That’s so cute. 

Ashley Ellefson: It’s cool. You can meet the pilots. They're really accessible, like we don't kind of, you know, hide them away. Like we want fans engaging with the sport and with the pilots.

Lucy Jabbour: Can you explain the culture around the pilots because like they have fandom, right, in Drone Racing League?   

Ashley Ellefson: They really do. Yeah, they definitely do. They have fandom within their own right. They they're a very diverse group of people. A lot of them are engineers and kind of techie like maker builders and so, they love building drones. They love flying drones. We have sort of different tracks.  Some of them have gotten really into the tech, the engineering side of it. Some of them are making their own drones. But anyone can learn to fly a drone on our simulator. Like, you both could be pilot if you wanted to put in the time and learn on the SIM. So, it's something that we really believe anyone can do.

DaiJah Metoyer: You also mentioned they're very fast paced. So, what happens when a drone crashes during a race?

Ashley Ellefson: Oh, it’s best part. For everyone except for our engineering team, because they have built 500-600 drones and so, they don't love it when the drones crash. The drones are built with like a carbon fiber shell. So that tends to like shatter. So, you do kind of get this like effect of the drone like flying apart, but it's really just the shell. Most of the rest of the interior that we've built is meant to, as much as possible, stick together. So, you have a really like loud impact. You can hear it. You often hear a lot of emotion coming from the flight deck with the pilots who have crashed or who have been affected by the crash and they're either really happy or really sad. But yeah, that's the best part. And then at the end, all of the drones like zoom into the finish to kind of give... it gives like the effect of all of them crashing and that is always the favorite part of the crowd.

DaiJah Metoyer: I can only imagine hearing them when you crash your drone. I know I would be upset.

Ashley Ellefson: But we always say crashing is part of racing. Like if you're not crashing, then you're not flying hard enough and we build more than 500 drones that we take to every race. So, we try to have enough where if every pilot crashed every drone in every heat, we would not run out of drones. 

DaiJah Metoyer: Can you explain a little bit what the pilots see when they're racing.

Ashley Ellefson: So, they actually see what the drone sees, which is super cool and really unique. It's called first person view, FPV, flight. So, the pilots wear goggles. They look like VR goggles, but they actually are connected via radio signal to a camera that's on the front of the drone. It's as if you're inside the drone. You can't move your head and look left or right. You have to physically like turn the drone. So, you have kind of a straight of head field of vision, but yeah, it's as though they're actually inside the drone itself.

DaiJah Metoyer: That’s so cool.

Lucy Jabbour: That is crazy and I'm sure it takes a little getting used to like we said because like your natural tendency would be look left look right, right? And an action happens.

Ashley Ellefson: Exactly and then you can also ride along and it's always a really disorienting experience when the pilots flying and then they turn the drone around and they're actually like looking at you. So, you’re seeing yourself in a camera in the goggles on your face and it is, it is just completely wild.

DaiJah Metoyer: It kind of sounds like a video game a little bit like that. It definitely appeals to me. And I'm a gamer. 

Lucy Jabbour: Yeah, me too.

Ashley Ellefson: Right up your alley. 

Lucy Jabbour: So, what makes a racing drone different from, you know, maybe some of the other commercial off the shelf drones. 

Ashley Ellefson: So, they're be built for kind of speed maneuverability. So, there's a lot of kind of the technical specifications that we've gone through from like a sport and an engineering perspective of what's going to make the drones go the fastest. They’re manual is the other big thing. We sometimes say it's the difference of driving like an automatic minivan versus like a formula one car. So, you control all ranges of motion. So, it's not like flying a DJI drone or something that's out of the box where you can kind of pull your phone up and like, press where you want it to go. You are controlling two sticks, and you have to be constantly on it. Otherwise, the drone will quite literally crash into whatever it is in front of or into the ground.

Lucy Jabbour: And I know we've been talking a lot about crashes, because that is exciting to see and especially with like the bodies that you guys have on these things it's almost like fireworks, right? When these things are like exploding. 

Ashley Ellefson: Yeah.

Lucy Jabbour: What do you guys do with Drone Racing League to make sure that not only the pilots are safe, but that the fans are safe as well?

Ashley Ellefson: Safety is one of my favorite topics to talk about. So, we work really closely, we're actually a partner of the FAA. We have been working with the FAA pretty much since DRL started to be part of the conversation and to help define what do event organizers who are producing events with drones need to do in order to ensure that it is safe. We own more than an entire 53-foot truckload of netting. So that gets installed in front of all audience or anyone that is spectating. We have camera operators that are on course. We put them in quite literally like a net box so that they're protected. And then we also have a lot of development that we've put into the actual drones themselves that give us essentially control of the drones. We have to like push a button on a computer to enable the drones to turn on and to fly. So that's really the failsafe that we have and then we also can take them down if we see something that's going awry. We can cut power to the drones and they'll drop to the to the ground.

Lucy Jabbour: What about Part 107 for like the pilots? Or like, what do you guys do with that?

Ashley Ellefson: Yeah, Part 107. So, all of our pilots, we ask them to be Part 107 certified. We have lots of records that we keep to make sure that they are updating that for pilots that are with us for multiple seasons.

DaiJah Metoyer: You've already explained a little bit that basically anybody could do this if they really wanted to. If someone is interested, what should they do or where should they start to get involved in drone racing?

Ashley Ellefson: So, we have DRL sim, an online simulator. That is the best place to start. So really, it's about muscle memory with time on the stick. So, you can use any number of radio controllers to fly and then it's just about remembering, like what to do to control the yaw and the pitch and the roll of the drones. And then from there, we hold a competition every year to be a pilot in the league and that's called tryouts. So, it's global. Anyone over the age of 18, can enter and a lot of the people that have come through that have actually never flown a drone and then they have gone on to be really successful pilots.

Lucy Jabbour: It's really fun to hear that some of the people who are becoming pilots really didn't come in with any experience. You know, we're kind of looking at, like, where are people sort of getting interested in when it comes to STEM. So, what kind of skills do you think people learn from the drone racing leagues, the academy classes you've made available? Those are really cool. And they're a free resource, right?

Ashley Ellefson: Yeah, absolutely. So, we, we teach people about the engineering and kind of the science behind drone racing, because we have a tech team and we design and build all of our drones. So, we're able to, quite literally, like pull up the hood of the drone and say, here's how it all works. So, we've done partnerships where we're sending physical drone kits, so that students and participants can build and learn to fly on their own. We've done Q&As with our engineers, our pilots. The sport of it is something that's really exciting and easily accessible. So, using that to pave the way for people to get excited about the engineering behind the sport and the drones themselves is something that we're really passionate about. 

DaiJah Metoyer: Where can someone go to watch the races?

Ashley Ellefson: So, on YouTube, so our YouTube channel to watch all of our races and then we have a ton of content on TikTok and Instagram as well for different like behind the scenes and pilot content and FPV content generally.

Lucy Jabbour: What do you think the future is for drone racing?

Ashley Ellefson: I think what's next and what we're really excited about is really kind of the AI piece. And so, our dream has always been, how do we have an AI pilot actually in the league? And who is the team behind that, that's going to develop something that is actually faster than human and is able to learn enough about its environment and within our courses to kind of navigate through space. 

Lucy Jabbour: Wow. It's like the non-player character (NPC) drone, right? 

Ashley Ellefson: Yes. 

Lucy Jabbour: Who can beat the NPC on the track? Wow, that is crazy. If you had a message for kids out there who are listening, and they're like, “Wow, this is so cool. I want to do this.” 

Ashley Ellefson: To just go out and try. There are so many local, like clubs and organizations worldwide that have communities that are coming together to fly drones. It doesn't have to be a fancy racing drone to get you up in the air.

Part 107 PSA: What in the drone world is Part 107 and why should you care? One word: safety. The FAA cares about the safety of everyone in the air and on the ground, and so should you. As a drone pilot, it’s your responsibility to always fly your drone safely. Following the rules in Part 107 helps keep people safe and our airspace system the safest in the world. Sound exciting? Learn more at

Lucy Jabbour: Thanks for listening! For more information about today’s guest, check out Subscribe, like, follow where ever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss a single episode. Coming up next week... we’re talking with Migdalia Gonzalez, the FAA’s Hispanic Employment Program Manager in the Office of Civil Rights, about how the FAA is creating awareness for Hispanic Americans around federal career pathways and opportunities.
Migdalia Gonzalez: Like, when I was growing up no one ever spoke to me about aviation.  And now we’re talking to these little kids about, they could be a pilot. They could be air traffic controllers, you know, like. I’m all about cheering them on because there’s nothing better than that.