DRONE RACING LEAGUE PILOT TALKS FUTURE OF THE SPORT
Drone Racing League is the premiere organization for the sport of racing drones.
Paul “NURK” Nurkkala is one of the twelve chosen pilots who compete in the annual Allianz Drone Racing League global tournament, which Nurkkala won in 2018.
He got his start with drones in 2014, when his in-laws gifted him a toy drone for Christmas.
“In like the first two days I broke that drone, just absolutely annihilated it,” recalls Nurkkala. “At the time I was a software engineer, so I thought I should be able to figure out how to fix it. I went online, got a YouTube University education in drone repair. And along the way I stumbled across drone racing.”
On seeing videos of people racing their drones through various landscapes, using GoPro cameras and LEDs, Nurkkala knew he had found what he was going to do. He learned how to build a drone and repair it after a crash, eventually building up to compete.
“I went to my first race, won my first race, went to a couple different qualifiers for national level competitions and worked my way up to second place in the world,” says Nurkkala. “I got a call for the Drone Racing League, actually, the morning after that race and then I got to join the Drone Racing League in 2017, and in 2018 became world champion.”
Nurkkala encourages people interested in drone racing to check out the DRL SIM, available on Xbox, PC and, most recently, PlayStation.
“The best place to start is to buy a controller and plug it straight into any computer you’ve got and learn the mechanics of flying a drone,” says Nurkkala. “The moment you get into the real world and fly, you already have the muscle memory down.”
DRL uses first-person view (FPV) technology, allowing pilots to see as the drone does during flight using analog goggles and a controller similar to a standard gaming controller.
“There’s two different fields of thought right now with FPV,” explains Nurkkala. “One is digital, which is much higher quality, but there’s a little bit of latency added. Then there’s analog, which looks like a 1990s security camera which is not great, but it’s instant. When the drones are flying at upwards of 90 miles an hour, every millisecond of delay you have comes out to be eight feet where you might be missing an obstacle. The gates we fly through are only seven feet wide, so we sacrifice a little bit of the video quality in exchange for higher performing equipment.”
FPV is only one piece of the relationship between pilot and drone. While understanding the craft behind the mechanics of the machine may seem important, Nurkkala doesn’t think so.
“The pilot machine relationship is improved by not understanding craft,” Nurkkala says. “For example, when I’m competing in the Drone Racing League, they bring 600 drones for us to fly, and because we’re not responsible for fixing them or making sure they’re maintained, we can fly to the limit every single flight. So in terms of racing performance I would say not being intimately familiar with the craft, in a way, is more valuable because I can fly faster.”
During a standard season, DRL races take place in-person; however, COVID required the organization shift to virtual races, using the DRL SIM. While the DRL SIM perfectly replicates the mechanics of flying drones in real life, the experience of using it to compete was quite different for Nurkkala.
“Racing in the simulator is obviously a much different experience than being live in front of 4500 people. It’s me in front of my dogs in the basement, may or may not be wearing pants,” jokes Nurkkala. “There’s a big difference between the energy level you get when you’re competing in front of an audience and what it’s like just sitting there by yourself. I struggled with that because I use the excitement of the event to hype up, get in the zone, get fired up.
After a virtual season in 2020, Nurkkala looks forward to returning to in-person races and DRL leveling up the experience of going to a race.
“I think the next step is for [Drone Racing League] to become an in-person sport,” posits Nurkkala. “Historically it’s been a post-produced show, and now we’ve brought it to the point where we can host those events in real time. Our first major success was Chase Field in Arizona, where the Arizona Diamondbacks play, at the end of 2019. We had 4500 people come to Chase Field and watch a race for four or five hours start to finish. I see this going from something that is content oriented to live sports oriented. I think that’s what the future of drone racing is.”
This interview was edited for length and clarity. The full conversation can be viewed here.
Photo courtesy of Drone Racing League