Drone racing

This article was first published on Lexis®PSL on 29 September 2016.

IP & IT analysis: Sky has recently announced that it will invest in the emerging sport of drone racing. Peter Lee, consultant at Taylor Vinters LLP, and Nick Smallwood, trainee at the firm, explain the background to this development and consider some of the related legal issues.

How is Sky getting involved with drone racing?

You may not have heard of drone racing yet, but Sky has placed a $1m bet that you’re going to like it, by investing in the New York based company that runs the Drone Racing League (DRL). The broadcaster will show ten 60 minute episodes covering five races on its Sky Sports Mix channel. Sky’s investment is part of a larger fundraising that also includes Hearst Ventures, MGM and Matt Bellamy, the lead singer of Muse. The DRL’s founder, Nicholas Horbaczewski, says he wants to take this increasingly popular hobby and turn it into a professional sport for a television audience. Drone racing is ready for take-off, with lawyers set to play an important role in its development.

What steps are being taken to create brands for this emerging sport?

Having tied up TV deals with ESPN and 7Sports, as well as Sky, DRL is in pole position to shape the future of professional drone racing if they can deliver a spectacle that captures the public imagination. They have taken a giant step forwards by finding backers willing to put them in the shop window, but it’s too early to say whether Sky has backed the right horse—there are a number of competing drone racing competitions, such as the Dubai Drone Prix where British teenager Luke Bannister scooped a £250,000 first prize earlier this year.

DRL will already have leant on their legal team to co-ordinate funding rounds and negotiate TV deals. They have also called in the intellectual property lawyers to mark out their brand’s territory (Hogan Lovells have secured a US trade mark for ‘Drone Racing League’, with an application for ‘DRL’ pending). If the league gains a following and starts to grow, the organisers will need to expand their trade mark portfolio and settle on an enforcement strategy. In fact, this might be a good idea already—earlier this year the Nare Corporation staked a competing claim to the name Drone Racing League by applying for an Australian trade mark for use in relation to ‘civilian drones’.

The DRL’s star pilots are marketed on the DRL website under nerdy nicknames like Zoomas (known for his ‘heart-pounding speed’), Skitzo (‘soft lines and graceful curves’) and MattyStuntz (‘split second seat-of-the-pants line creation and lightning fast acrobatic moves.’) These men (they do seem to be mostly men) and their ilk could become highly paid mercenaries in the mould of Premiership footballers. If they do, the lawyers will be there in the background, negotiating employment contracts and sponsorship deals that recognise the pilots’ brand value.

What are the IP protection issues relating to drone racing technology?

The 2016 DRL season will feature the DRL racer 2 drones, quadcopters (four rotors) with carbon fibre frames studded with LED lights to make it easier for spectators to follow the action. The drones incorporate an HD camera, which is linked to a pair of first person view (FPV) goggles which give pilots a drone’s eye view as they speed around obstacles on aerial racetracks at speeds of up to 120mph. The companies that develop the technology used in drone racing will need good patent attorneys in their corner (creating an FPV system that isn’t prone to sudden failure has been a particular challenge). They may also wish to protect their drones’ appearance by obtaining registered design rights.

This type of legal input will become particularly important if drone racing develops along the same lines as Formula 1, with engineers engaging in an arms race to build drones that are more durable, aerodynamic and powerful. At the moment, many drone racing competitions are more purist, with pilots mostly flying the same kind of drone. If the sport does go down the Formula 1 route, it will be important for drone manufacturers to be hyper-vigilant about keeping their confidential information safe, particularly when employees leave to work for a competitor.

How is the flying of drones regulated?

A threat to the wide uptake of drone racing could be the laws covering the use of drones, which are fragmented and not harmonised around the world. The UK leads the pack in this area with some of the most sophisticated rules governing the use of drones. The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is the specialist aviation regulator organisation responsible for ensuring safety in the skies. Breaching the key piece of legislation governing this area, the Air Navigation Order 2016, SI 2016/765, is a criminal offence and, alongside the police, the CAA has successfully prosecuted people for flying drones illegally. Aside from the aviation rules, there are a myriad of other laws that interface with the use of drone technologies including data protection and privacy, wireless or radio frequency spectrum, trespass and nuisance and insurance requirements. The CAA does permit the sport of drone racing and has granted an exemption to aspects of the Air Navigation Order 2016 to allow FPV flight under some circumstances. The nature of most responsible drone racing events means that the environment is relatively well controlled and so issues such as data protection infringement and trespass are usually not an issue. Amateur drone racing organisations have formed with the purpose of safely organising, insuring and facilitating competitive drone racing. In the UK, FPV UK represents FPV model ‘drone’ flyers in discussions with regulatory bodies such as the CAA, the National Air Traffic Service, the Department for Transport and Ofcom, it also arranges insurance for its members.

There is an exciting future for the nascent sport of drone racing and, as usual with anything new, the lawyers are circling close behind.

Peter Lee is considered to be one of the world’s leading drone lawyers. He is CEO of Wavelength Law and a consultant to Taylor Vinters LLP.

Nick Smallwood is a trainee solicitor at Taylor Vinters LLP and a prolific blogger on IP and tech law subjects.

Interviewed by Alex Heshmaty.

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