Why Holding 2018 Drone Racing League Championship In Saudi Arabia Is A Problem
Online controversy is swirling around the Drone Racing League’s announcement in October that it will hold its 2018 championships in Saudi Arabia. First denounced in a blog post on The Drone Girl, the decision to hold the races in a country hostile to women has been condemned as exacerbating the already male-dominated drone racing field.
And it’s not just women who are concerned. A number of social media commenters expressing outrage at the decision are men concerned about the potential impact on women, as well as openly gay or transgender drone pilots. Saudi Arabia is hostile to them, too.
The State Department’s travel warnings would give any female or LGBT traveler pause. Anyone who wears a religious medal, such as a cross, should also take note: “Public display of non-Islamic religious articles, such as crosses and Bibles, is not permitted.” And while Saudi Arabia has announced some notable changes regarding women ― they will now be allowed to drive and in 2018 will be allowed to attend some stadiums as spectators ― there’s clearly more to be done.
I, too, am concerned with the message that holding the drone races in Saudi Arabia sends, especially to young people. To me, drone racing isn’t just a sport; it’s a gateway for students to get involved in aviation and technology. I see that with the UAV Club at Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology, where I teach; students in the club love to design, build and race drones. They even 3-D print many of the parts. Our International Drone Day events have had packed build-a-drone classes, filled with even younger students.
Just as model aircraft launched many of us – myself included – into lifelong careers in aviation, drones and drone racing promise the same for students today. And we need more people to go into aviation careers. Boeing’s 20-year aviation forecast predicts a need for more than 2.1 million new aviation personnel between now and 2036: 637,000 new commercial airline pilots, 648,000 new commercial airline maintenance technicians and 839,000 new cabin crew members. In addition to the fairness issue of excluding people based on gender or orientation, we can’t afford to discourage more than half the world’s population from potential careers in this burgeoning field.
I reached out to the Drone Racing League, ESPN (which will be broadcasting the event) and some of the league’s sponsors to understand why Saudi Arabia was picked and what the DRL and sponsors were doing to ensure that participants would be safe regardless of gender or orientation. ESPN basically responded that it was airing the event but was not a sponsor and then passed the buck – and my inquiry – to the DRL. Sponsors were contacted, but most to date have failed to respond. Swatch Watch did respond: “We have worked with DRL in 2017 to help promote this sport of [sic] and will continue to do so. Please note that due to embargo reasons, we are unable to reveal any more information at this point.”
The DRL provided a statement that included the following:
When DRL agreed to host the event in Saudi Arabia, it was done with full understanding that women would be an integral part of the event (potentially as pilots, depending on who qualifies for 2018 pilot roster …) and that the race being planned and executed by a team of many of the most accomplished women and men in the events industry. As the global professional circuit for drone racing, we host races all over the world, each of which present unique challenges, and we work tirelessly to ensure our pilots, staff and fans feel comfortable and safe at any of our events.
For pilots specifically, DRL’s policy always has been and remains that any pilot that qualifies for the league (regardless of gender or any other factor) will fly in every event in our global series. DRL covers all travel costs, logistics and planning to ensure a safe, positive experience for every pilot. If, for any reason, at any event, any DRL pilot is not able to fly under conditions in which they are comfortable, we will not hold the event at that venue. This includes our planned Saudi Arabia World Championship in 2018, as well as all of our races in the 2018 circuit.
I contacted Zoe Stumbaugh, an award-winning drone racer and an outspoken critic of DRL’s decision to hold the championships in Saudi Arabia, to see whether the DRL’s statement assuaged her concerns, especially the statement that if any pilot was not able “to fly under conditions in which they are comfortable,” the event would not be held at that venue. She said: “It should not weigh individually to any single competitor to feel comfortable or not, and it should not be on the competitors’ shoulders to make that decision for a league. … I would have hoped they would have created an environment of inclusiveness to begin with rather than having to create one after the fact.”
She added: “As the person who won the first sanctioned drone race in the U.S., I find it appalling that one of the biggest organizations in the sport in the U.S. would hold their championships in a country that segregates women in stadiums, doesn’t allow women to play sports, forces women to live under a male guardianship system and at the whim of their ‘guardian.'”
I reached out to the General Sport Authority of Saudi Arabia, a co-sponsor of the 2018 race, for comment on actions it will take to ensure that any female or LGBT participants can safely enter and travel in Saudi Arabia and participate either as pilots or spectators. To date, I have not received a response.