Drones, DJs and virtual reality headline Navy Yard party
The piercing whine of drones hurtling at 90 mph around a fluorescent 3D course and the roar of hundreds of fans shook the cavernous Agger Fish warehouse at the Brooklyn Navy Yard Friday night during one of the most memorable parties of the summer.
It was the Drone Racing League’s first live New York event, and sponsors Allianz and BMW put on a red-carpet show, with four rounds of precision drone racing (including some spectacular smashups), immersive virtual reality experiences, a live DJ, abundant finger food and an open bar.
Attendees mingled with professional drone pilots, played drone computer games and got the chance to fly like a bird — for a few virtual-reality induced minutes, at least.
After climbing atop the Allianz Birdly, a full-body avian VR simulator, the player moves the wings up and down and controls the tilt of the body. A VR display puts the rider up in the air over a virtual city, soaring like a bird — and maybe crashing into a skyscraper or tree.
The event was held in conjunction with this past weekend’s E-Prix car race in Red Hook, so the electric vehicle fever was in the air. Between two of BMW’s electric winged-door i8 cars, the pilots sat in command chairs with their backs to the drones. The pilots wore VR goggles, viewing live video feeds from cameras mounted on their drones as they sped through and around suspended geometric shapes. An announcer called the moves and announced the winner of each round.
One final round featured the winning three pilots going head-to-head for a winner-take all trophy. DRL pilot Alex Vanover won the award.
The Drone Racing League competes at locations around the world. Fans will be able to watch the 2019 DRL Allianz World Championship Season, which premieres on NBC and Twitter on Sunday, August 11 at 2 p.m.
Professional pilot Paul Nurkkala, 28, is living the dream as a member of the league. A former software engineer, he told the Brooklyn Eagle how he got started in the field of drone racing.
“For Christmas 2014 my in-laws bought me a little toy drone — Walmart grade,” he said. “I was flying it around, challenging myself to fly through little obstacles, or land it on a chair, and I broke it. So I gave myself a ‘YouTube University’ education in fixing drones and in the process discovered drone racing,” he said. “There’s this video of a bunch of French guys flying around in a forest with LEDs and GoPros, and I was hooked. I knew I have to do this.”
From the beginning his wife, who is a full-time nurse, was very supportive, Nurkkala said. “I was a working-from-home software engineer whose primary hobby was video games, so I never left the house. So when I started wanting to go outside and meet new friends and fly my drones, she was on board.”
Nurkkala — aka NURK — trains for the sport as intensely as any sports professional.
“Three to four weeks prior to a race, I’ll go into a full time practice mode,” he said. “I’ll be practicing between 10 and 12 hours a day, seven days a week leading up to a race.”
Thanks to his profession, the 28-year-old has traveled all around the world.
“The Drone Racing League has flown in Alexandra Palace in London, in KAEC, Saudi Arabia,” he said. “We’ve flown in Munich, Germany, and Nice, France. This got me out of the house, out of the country — I’ve traveled more than I ever thought I would in my entire life. I mean, I was facing down life in a cubical, essentially. Now all of a sudden we’re jetting across the world.”
Nurkkala recommends that beginners start with an inexpensive drone and also recommends DRL’s drone flying software game.
“The Drone Racing League has produced a computer game, DRL Simulator, where you can plug in an X-Box controller or even a normal hobby-grade radio and fly what is essentially a real drone,” he said.
“That’s one of the best ways — because you can crash it a thousand times and never spend an extra dollar.”
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