SportTechie’s Athletes Voice series features the views and opinions of the athletes who use and are powered by technology. SportTechie caught up with 2018 DRL Allianz World Champion Paul “Nurk” Nurkkala to talk about how he got into drone racing, and how professional drone racing can expand its reach.
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Like many people, Paul “Nurk” Nurkkala spent his first few years of adulthood at a sensible job—he was a computer programmer living in Indianapolis. But in December 2015, his parents-in-law gifted him a Hubsan X4 toy drone. Initially, Nurkkala, who had long been an avid gamer, just used the drone as a distraction. Then, one day, it broke. Given his engineering background, he decided to try to fix it, and dived into YouTube. There he discovered a world of first-person-view drones and competitive drone racing. He was quickly hooked.
Nurkkala spent the following few years learning the basics of FPV drone racing, wearing goggles to see a real-time feed from his drone—as though he were a miniature pilot standing on its deck—and racing around obstacle courses and through gates at 90 miles per hour. He practiced 10 hours per day, flying a custom-built DRL Racer3 outside, and practicing on the Drone Racing League’s simulator inside.
At the age of 27, with just two years of racing experience, Nurkkala stood atop the podium at the 2018 DRL Allianz World Championship finale, having beaten out two-time winning world champion, Jordan “Jet” Temkin.
Nurkkala has also shared his experiences on a video blog, covering everything from tutorials to footage of his own adventures. In one clip, he set out to explore with some friends outside of Reno, Nev., and ended up flying in and around a moving freight train. That video, Flight of the Year, ended up on the front page of Reddit and went viral, amassing nearly 2.2 million views on YouTube and more than 10 million on Facebook. Nurkkala’s YouTube subscriber base quadrupled to more than 40,000, and the short movie went on to become nominated at film festivals and won four awards. As a result, he has started a production company with his videography friend called “Cinactive Media”—a play on “cinema” and “action.”
Launching a Pro Career
“In 2014, my in-laws bought me a toy drone for Christmas and I broke it. When you break something you can either replace it or try to fix it. I’m an engineer, so I decided to fix it. I started Googling and going through a YouTube University education and eventually figured out how to fix that drone and in that same process, learned about drone racing.”
“I saw this video of these French guys flying FPV around in a forest and I thought ‘I have to do that.’ It was not an ‘Oh, that looks cool.’ It was a very decisive. ‘This must happen now.’ Since then, I’ve just been learning how to fly, and how to race and how to compete. Slowly that turned into ‘What would it take to be the best? What would it take to leave my mark on drone racing?’ Here we are today and it’s pretty crazy.”
Learning on the DRL Simulator
“What I love about the simulator is it teaches you the muscle memory and the movements and the fine tuning of controls to confidently fly a drone in real life. The sim is, in my opinion, one of the best learning tools for learning how to fly FPV in drone racing.”
“A buddy of mine, [was] actually competing [at the 2019 DRL tryouts], his username is ‘SLiguykyle.’ He had, as far as I know, only flown real drones a couple of times. We were together one day and he said ‘Hey, can I fly your Racer3,’ because I happened to have it with me. So I just handed him the controls and just said ‘Go for it.’ He took off and flew it around uncomfortably well. You know, he’s doing maneuvers that you shouldn’t do on your first flight on someone else’s machine. And he executed flawlessly. It was awesome.”
“They’ve taken [the simulator] to labs and taken drones to labs and have done visual learning and airflow analysis and all of this stuff to make the digital version fly exactly like the real-life version.”
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Drones v. Esports
“I think the difference [from esports] is that it is in real life. I can go to a park and I can walk around it, or I can go over the trees and through the branches and underneath and over the gazebo and experience the world from a new perspective.”
“I remember this one time I was kind of arguing with a friend of mine because we were trying to do some long-range missions. We were flying out a couple miles and back. I told him ‘I want to put my body there and then I want to take it a step further and experience it with FPV.’”
“We were hiking through a canyon in Iceland and we’d made our way to the top of the canyon where we couldn’t go any further because there was a waterfall, and cliffs. We take the drones out and we fly them up to the top of the waterfall. And just like that we are birds, experiencing something that probably nobody else has been able to experience in the entire history of the world. That, to me, is beautiful. And it’s this combination of the real world and technology.”
(Photo courtesy of the Drone Racing League)
Sharing the Adventure
“Flying FPV is an out-of-body experience. There’s moments when I’m flying—and this still happens today after flying thousands and thousands of hours—when I’m like ‘Wait, who’s that? Oh, it’s me.’ You don’t realize how immersive it is until you’ve experienced flying it for yourself. You are a bird. You are superman. You can go wherever you want in a 3D space, something that you’ve never been able to do with just your body. And that experience is to a level where it’s spiritual for some people. And that’s only an option through technology, through this growing technology of FPV drone racing.”
“I think, with modern sports, sports that are starting recently, social media is an integral part of it. In esports, everybody is streaming themselves or they’re doing a recording and making highlight clips and they’re bringing that back to the community. Drone racing is no different. We all have the ability to record what we’re seeing and share it with everybody. And whether that’s the low-quality stuff we see in our goggles or taking a GoPro and sticking it on the quad and recording that. Or, I like to vlog it and bring people along with me on that adventure.”
“I think modern sports almost have social media as a requirement. And then, specifically in drone racing, along with other sports like that where social media is a big part of it, we just want to share. We want to share our experience. We want to share our passion. Other people get infected by that and they get excited and then they infect their people and it kind of becomes a virus of ‘How do we get more people excited about this because we care about it so much.”
Building a New Sport
“We get to be the pioneers of our own destiny. We’re basically coming in at the ground level of what we believe and hope to become a next big sport. So, we have the opportunity here at the ground level to define what that’s going to look like. In my mind, it’s about community. It’s about bringing people together.”
“Digital sports, like esports or performance drones, there’s this very interesting meritocracy that happens where it doesn’t matter your gender, your age, your race, your language. It doesn’t matter if you’re 12, you can hang out with a 50-year-old and still learn from each other. I don’t have to be able to speak Korean to have us both understand what’s going on when we put the goggles on. And that kind of interaction can change the world. I want to see drone racing continue to be that way, forever.”
“The mark that I want to leave is that people can be encouraged and excited to be part of a community. I think that to be involved with other people, to know other people, is to be human. Humans are meant to be with one another. I think something like FPV that brings people together of all different backgrounds is a part of that. In the long term, what I hope is that as we as a sport grow into the future, we are directly remembering that it all started with us flying toys in our backyard.”
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