Two squadrons of little Star Wars drones fly through the air in a Brooklyn, N.Y., event space, blasting each other with lasers within the net-lined battle zone. The scoreboard keeps a tally as pro-pilots whip their X-Wings and TIE Fighters around, tagging each other between barrel rolls.
Propel, the company behind the toys, was showing off its flying machines in the runup to “Force Friday,” the seemingly annual shopping spectacle for Walt Disney Co.’s prized sci-fi franchise on Sept. 1. The merchandising machine will be in full gear, unveiling new toys and collectibles to begin hyping its products for the holiday rush and the theatrical release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi in December. In recent years, Star Wars has held special event days for merchandise before an upcoming big-budget movie, such as The Force Awakens and Rogue One.
Disney has planned events with dozens of retailers clamoring to capitalize on the franchise’s might, from Walmart and Amazon.com to Toys R Us and Target. Smaller retailers, such as Build-A-Bear Workshop, Hot Topic, and even Pottery Barn Kids, got a piece of the action too. Brookstone and Staples will hawk gadgets; Bed Bath & Beyond will sell Star Wars bedding, waffle makers, and alarm clocks. Even Apple stores are taking part in the party.
Star Wars helped U.S. toy sales increase 5 percent, to $20.4 billion, in 2016, according to data from NPD Group. It’s the largest franchise in the industry, hauling in almost $760 million last year, the research firm estimates.
The toys, meanwhile, are getting more complex and tech-infused. This year an app-enabled R2-D2 droid can drive around, react, and wobble. An augmented reality game lets users play Holo-chess and have light-saber battles. Force Link syncs wearable tech with toys to emit sound effects while kids play with their action figures and vehicles. These are not your father’s Luke Skywalker and Han Solo action figures.
Then, of course, there are the drones. Thus far, there are three types: X-Wing, TIE Advanced, and Speeder Bike. They can fly up to 30 miles per hour, can do push-button stunts, and have the battery life to zoom around for about eight minutes. A flight simulator app that mimics real-life controls and physics contains various training modes that teach new pilots the basics without having to crash an actual drone dozens of times.
“This is a tech product to the highest degree,” said Darren Matloff, chief executive officer of Propel. “It just looks like a toy.”
For Propel, scoring the Star Wars contract last year changed its business. Matloff said the drone maker expects to see $100 million in revenue from Star Wars drones alone in their first full year on the global market. The Star Wars drones are more of a multiplayer game than solo plaything—the connected drones can sync up to battle each other, with statistics uploaded to a gamer profile. Propel wants to turn the battle drones into an e-sports-like competitive game, with local flight-clubs and tournaments.
And most importantly, he hopes to expand his relationship with Disney. “We have several products in development that are Star Wars products that we hope to get approval on soon,” he said.