First published in Campaign

We’ve all cringed at those old sci-fi movies that start with a bold caption like “Earth 2050”. We seemed to have survived “Judgement Day” on April 21, 2011, when Skynet was supposed to have become self-aware and enslaved of the human race. I’m fairly sure I didn’t see anything on Twitter on October 21st in 2015 about a DeLorean appearing from 1985. And given that the Tyrell Corporation hasn’t even got a Kickstarter campaign together to make Replicants, the chances of the Governor of LA having to hire Blade Runners to track them down 18 months from now are a little slim. In short, we’re really crap at predicting the future.

Then last night happened. A few weeks back, a friend pinged me one of those “Dude, this is so you!” WhatsApp messages. It was the finals of the Drone Racing League world series and it was right here in London, only a few minutes walk from my back door. What’s not to like!

“I’ll drive us there” my mate Kaz announced. “But it’s only a 5-minute walk?” I said. “Yeah, trust me, I’ll drive us!”. Weird, but fine I guess.

Turns out Kaz has the new Tesla Model X and knows this is EXACTLY how one should turn up at the Drone Racing League finals. The Back To The Future reference when entering a Model X via the needlessly theatrical gullwing doors wasn’t lost on me. Some gobsmacked passer-by took a picture on their phone. I’d have done the same.

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much from the main event itself. I’ve seen drone racing on YouTube. It was like watching a bunch of tiny, super-fast wasps with LED lights on. But after the final heat of the night, I was already planning the excuses to my wife for needing an FPV drone “for work”.

For the uninitiated, here’s how it works. 6 “pilots” sit in a brightly lit area with goggles on that allow them to see what the drone sees, live. The course is indoors, laid out over maybe 200m and consists of a bunch of hoops and gates that must be passed through in the right order. There are horizontal gates close to the ground as well as suspended gates at crazy angles that are navigated vertically. The winner is the first one to slam into a special tent with a net in at the end. It’s a 3D Grand National, with LED wasps.

Scanning around the room, it was pretty well attended. Some things stood out from this crowd though. Firstly, they weren’t the nerdy 14-year-olds I’d expected, they seemed really quite normal. Some had clearly come from their city jobs to be here. It felt like the crowd you get at an F1 race rather than Comic Con. The other thing was that many were sporting the same FPV (first person perspective) goggles as the pilots. It turns out that you can tune in to whichever drone you like as it’s racing and see what the pilot sees. Kinda cool.

The event itself had some big logos too. Amazon Prime seemed to be picking up the main sponsor tab. They clearly know their audience as there was “Grand Tour” (aka Top Gear 2) branding everywhere. The live commentators were at pains to repeat “no live filming allowed”, presumably as another big hitter, Sky, had picked up the broadcast rights. And should you want to put down a fiver and predict the winner, Bet Fair were in attendance too. Some very influential business brains in some very big companies had decided there was something in this.

As the heats played out, everyone got more and more shouty. Although it felt a little incongruent at times, it seemed to have enough of the building blocks to, well, build on. Out of nowhere, I’d visited the future, in a car that can drive itself and looks like a DeLorean.

It turns out there’s a name for what just happened, the Budding Effect. Edwin Budding invented the lawn mower (bear with me on this one). Well-cut grass meant games like baseball, tennis, football, golf and all number of pastimes could proliferate. This led to sports stadiums, sports professionals, coaches, physios and everything in between. It led to merchandising, sponsorship, TV rights, commentators, live TV broadcasts and new betting platforms. You get the picture.

I’m sure the guy who used to supply the grass-eating goats hated Edwin Budding but in the wider view, a seemingly unrelated invention spawned entire industries. People retrained for these new jobs overnight and prospered.

Now swap lawn mowers for A.I., drone racing, robots, autonomous cars or any of the other ‘inventions’ that pop up every week in the “<insert new thing> will steal your job” headlines and you soon realise we’ve been here before, many, many times. We won’t lose our jobs, we’ll just do the new ones.

To circle back on my movie theme, may I throw one more into the mix for its pure irony… a cheesy, 1992 apocalyptic sci-fi movie where VR tries (but ultimately fails) to consume mankind… what was it’s name? Oh yes, The Lawnmower Man…

Dino Burbidge

About Dino Burbidge

I know enough about most things to be dangerous. Currently Director of Innovation and Technology at WCRS.

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