Advice from One of the World’s Top Drone Pilots: An Interview with 2018 DRL Allianz World Champion Paul “Nurk” Nurkkala
BY Zacc Dukowitz7 November 2018
Last Thursday the Drone Racing League (DRL) announced Paul “Nurk” Nurkkala as the 2018 DRL Allianz World Champion. The final race of the season aired on ESPN, and is currently airing internationally in more than 75 countries throughout the world.
Nurkkala is a twenty-seven year old drone pilot based in Indianapolis, IN. While training to become the champion he put in grueling, 10-hour days, and ultimately beat out some of the best drone pilots in the world for the title, including 2x winning DRL Allianz World Champion Jordan “Jet” Temkin.
We got the chance to sit down with Nurk to ask him about his training regimen, how he became one of the best drone racing pilots in the world, and what advice he has for up-and-coming pilots out there.
Read the interview below to see what he had to say.
Want to learn more about Nurk? Check out his YouTube channel NURK FPV, where he’s been documenting his racing career since he first got started.
How did you first get into flying drones?
In Christmas of 2014 my in-laws bought me a little toy drone—I think it was a Hubsan X4 .
I’d never really done any RC or drone racing, but I kind of always wanted to. So when my in-laws bought me this drone, I just started playing with it non-stop. I’m a grown adult at this point, 23 years old, and I can’t put this toy down.
How did your initial interest in drones turn into an interest in drone racing?
Before I knew anything about drone racing, I was already taking micro-drones and giving myself challenges.
Like, can I fly it through this gap? Can I land it on this little spot? We even pasted sewing needles to the drone to create challenges. All sorts of stuff.
And then, of course, I broke it. And I was like, I’m an engineer. I can fix this. So I started Googling and doing research to figure out how to repair it, and that’s when I stumbled across a video of a bunch of guys doing a drone race in France. And I was like, “I have to do this.”
I kept attending YouTube university, taught myself a little bit about electronics and how to solder, and I built my own racing drone. The maiden flight was March 15th, 2015. I have a video that my wife took with her cellphone of me flying that drone for the first time.
What were your first few drone races like?
The first race that I ever went to I was placed in the 3S class, and I won.
About two months later someone on Reddit told me about another race coming up, so I went down and raced there too.
I met some really amazing people at both of those races. The people were part of what really drove my interest in racing. I think the community is what drives most of our passion.
When did you decide to pursue drone racing full time?
I’d been working as a programmer, and shortly after those first few races I did some reflection and realized that I would never be the best at something in programming, because there are a lot of people out there who are already really, really good at it. But I might just have a shot at being one of the best drone racers.
I actually have this all on video, me talking through this. And in that moment, I knew I was really going to go after drone racing, and that it was something I was going to be chasing for at least the next three years.
After you decided to go all in on drone racing, what steps did you take next to make that happen?
I think there are three key things that happened to help me launch my professional career as a drone racing pilot.
The first thing was that I met drone pilots Zack Thayer and Jordan Temkin, also known as A_Nub and Jet respectively, at an event in Atlanta. Jet had just come off a couple big wins and A_Nub had started his own drone company.
These guys were the first people to give me the time of day. They were really encouraging. I remember being at an event, sitting down and flying, and when I took my goggles off Jet took his off at the same time, and he looked at me and said, “Hey, that was awesome.” That really stuck with me.
The next thing that happened was I won a fairly major race called Flight Bash 2016, which came with a tattoo sponsorship and a pretty big purse. That race was the first time that I beat a professional pilot—actually, three or four of the pilots who competed there would later go on to be on DRL.
And then the third thing was that Zack and Jordan introduced me to Ryan Gury, the Director of Product at DRL, and Ryan brought me on as a coach. The role was meant to give pilots someone to help strategize with that’s not a competitor, but who also is a pilot and has that kind of thought process. That was my first introduction into DRL.
How did you go from that point to joining DRL as a professional drone racing pilot?
As a coach I got to see what true, professional drone racing looked like. Being so close to it was really motivating, and I kept flying all the time while I was coaching.
Shortly after I became a coach I won a regional qualifier, and then I took second place at both the Drone Sports Association’s (DSA) Nationals and at the DSA Drone World’s race.
The day after the BSA race Ryan called me and said, “Hey, you’re coming up to the big leagues.” And that’s when I got to join the DRL team.
What insights can you share with us about drone racing?
To get better, flying every day is really important. Flying is not like riding a bike—you really have to keep your mind and your reactions sharp, and you need to practice just being under goggles a lot.
I advocate for a style of racing that I call “fly your own race.” Essentially that means you just ignore the other pilots and focus on what you’re doing. All my training is based around finding and strengthening that self-awareness. The faster I push myself in practice, where it’s okay to crash, the faster my baseline becomes.
Also, the only way to get better at competing is to compete, so I go to every single race I can. Small and local, or big and national, just get out there and compete. And even our practices are competitions. When we go out to practice, we’re there to work. We’re going as fast as we can and we’re pushing ourselves to compete against one another.
Do you have any special advice for those amateur drone racing pilots out there looking to step up their game? Any tips or tricks?
I don’t think there’s a trick to getting good at racing. It’s all about hard work. It’s about getting the packs in and practicing competition. Bringing your nerves under control and just having experience, getting in the seat, facing that pressure straight on, and doing your best.
[Check out our crash course on the FPV side of drone flight. Our FPV Drone Racing Guide includes explanations of FPV drone flying, how it works, and recommendations for some of the best equipment to get started.]
You’ve said that in order to win the DRL Championship you had to learn how to fly a different way. What does that mean?
In the middle of this season I slumped. I just did not fly well, and I did really bad, and that continued for a few more races.
I just was not feeling it. So I took a step back, did some real reflection, and realized was that when I practice, I fly very tight, complicated courses, developing that quick reaction time, and finding lines through technical sections. But I wasn’t ever really practicing DRL-style tracks, which tend to have really big, open areas interspersed with really technical parts.
In talking to other pilots I realized that they were flying with the stick jammed all the way to the front, which lets them fly confidently through the big parts, and then they take their time through the slow parts.
So I actually changed the way I hold my controller so it’s much easier for me physically to reach the top end of the stick rather than the bottom. By moving my hand a little bit forward and changing my grip up a little bit on the stick, I was able to make it easier to reach that high percentage of terminal rather than the bottom half, and that just kind of forced me to click into it.
What advice do you have for people who want to get started with drone racing?
I can’t help but recommend simulators, especially the DRL Simulator.
When you fly drones, and especially when you race them, you break stuff. And it gets old really fast. So if you can spend the first 30 to 40 hours of your stick time flying without wasting a bunch of money on broken drones and equipment, that is going to be a much more encouraging introduction to flying than crashing and spending a bunch of money.
But once you hit that point where you’re trying to improve and become competitive, my advice changes, and becomes “don’t be afraid to crash.”
If you start practicing and realize that you’re holding back because you’re trying not to crash rather than flying the maximum by increasing that baseline, you have to be willing to say, “Okay, I’m going out and I’m going to be flying above my comfort level.” That way you’ll practice so that when you get to a race, your comfort level is now better and faster than everybody else’s “holy crap I’m gonna crash” kind of perspective.
We understand you have a Part 107 certificate. Can you tell us what motivated you to get that?
There are three reasons I have a 107. The first is, as a professional content creator and a professional pilot, I wanted to do everything by the book and be fully legal as a commercial drone pilot. Even as a YouTube content creator who flies a drone, I do think being 107 certified is a good idea.
Second, I have a company that provides drone services, and so I needed the certificate for that.
And third, this year DRL required all pilots to get their Part 107.
Now that you’ve won the DRL Championship, what are you going to do next?
That is a question I’m currently trying to answer.
I love creating content and sharing it, even though it’s a ton of work, and I imagine I’ll be putting more energy there. For every three-minute flying video, there’s been 30 hours of building and training, practicing and fixing. So sharing flying and racing through that medium, encouraging other people through it, I feel like that’s something that I care a lot about on top of racing itself.
So this opportunity of having won the DRL Allianz World Championship gives me this great platform for me to keep making content and sharing my love for racing with other people. You know, telling people, This is why you should be doing this. And so I couldn’t be more excited about that.
But also, right now, I’m just trying to enjoy the moment. It is pretty incredible.
Learn more about the Drone Racing League and how it got started in this interview we did last year with DRL CEO Nicholas Horbaczewski.
Are you into drone racing, or want to be? Share your thoughts and opinions on Nurk, the 2018 DRL Championship, and the fast-growing sport of drone racing in this thread on the UAV Coach community forum.