NEED FOR SPEED

Drone rac­ing is spread­ing its wings in Malaysia, at­tract­ing fans who build their own machines and fly com­pet­i­tively.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Front Page - By SHARMILA NAIR bytz@thes­tar.com.my

THE in­ces­sant hum­ming from the rac­ing drones is com­pa­ra­ble to a swarm of an­gry bees buzzing around an other­wise quiet field lo­cated in Bukit Je­lu­tong, Shah Alam.

At the edge of the field is a group of men, some wear­ing gog­gles and fid­dling with ra­dio con­trollers, while oth­ers look straight ahead, try­ing to catch a glimpse of the source of the sound.

These are pro­fes­sional drone rac­ers, en­gag­ing in a friendly race on a Satur­day morn­ing, show­ing off their deft pi­lot­ing skills and state-of-the-art rac­ing machines.

Still feel­ing the adren­a­line rush from the re­cent Eco Ar­dence Drone Prix 2017 in Kuala Lumpur, the rac­ing en­thu­si­asts are al­ways look­ing for a rea­son to get to­gether dur­ing the off sea­son, if only for fun.

Most of the rac­ers have reg­u­lar day jobs, and drone rac­ing is just a hobby. For some, it also brings spon­sor­ship, fans and recog­ni­tion in this fairly new sport.

“I have been into rac­ing drones for over two years now, and it is very ad­dic­tive. It gives you an adren­a­line rush like no other,” says full-time drone racer Muham­mad Ariff Ghaz­ali, 29. “It is like you’re fly­ing an air­craft, and have full con­trol of it with­out the risk. It took me less than a week to mas­ter it.”

Last year, Ariff rep­re­sented Malaysia at the World Drone Rac­ing Cham­pi­onship in Hawaii, United States, and though he didn’t win, it was still a big feat as the sport is still in its for­ma­tive years here.

At the cen­tre of it all is Drone Rac­ing As­so­ci­a­tion Malaysia chair­man Adam Lok­man, who is also the race and op­er­a­tions di­rec­tor of Mul­tiGP Malaysia, a com­pet­i­tive drone rac­ing or­gan­i­sa­tion for first-per­son view (FPV) ra­dio-con­trolled air­craft.

Mul­tiGP Malaysia was es­tab­lished last year, and is the of­fi­cial Malaysian chap­ter of the US-based Mul­tiGP league with over 16,000 mem­bers. There are cur­rently about 120 mem­bers in Malaysia.

“Mul­tiGP Malaysia or­gan­ises pro­fes­sional races as well as ex­hi­bi­tions and events for all skill lev­els. The num­ber of races de­pends on the spon­sors, but ide­ally we would like to have it ev­ery three months,” says Adam. So far, Mul­tiGP Malaysia has or­gan­ised com­pe­ti­tions around the Klang Val­ley, Jo­hor and Sarawak and is look­ing to ven­ture into new venues in the fu­ture.

Get, set, go

The race fol­lows Mul­tiGP’s com­pe­ti­tion for­mat, as well as its rules and tech­ni­cal guide­lines. Rac­ers use FPV rac­ing drones with spec­i­fi­ca­tions set by the or­gan­is­ers, and they are re­quired to ma­noeu­vre their drones on an ob­sta­cle course.

“Race drones are fully man­u­ally op­er­ated. There are no au­ton­o­mous func­tions and be­cause of the speed they fly – they can go up to 140kph – the drones have to be nim­ble and com­pact,” says Adam.

The rac­ing drones com­pet­ing in Mul­tiGP can have a frame size rang­ing from 190mm to 310mm, with a max­i­mum di­am­e­ter of 152mm for the pro­pel­ler.

Each drone can have two, three or four bladed pro­pel­lers, with as many mo­tors at­tached. How­ever, most rac­ers pre­fer the four-mo­tor va­ri­ety, also known as quad­copter or quads.

There is a cam­era at­tached to the front of the drone that broad­casts live feed to the rac­ers’ gog­gles so the pi­lots have a sense of be­ing in the cock­pit.

“This first-per­son view is one of the rea­sons why drone rac­ing has taken off dif­fer­ently than other ra­dio con­trol sports. The pi­lots get the sen­sa­tion of ‘fly­ing’ as if hey are in a real air­craft at a crazy speed,” says Adam. The au­di­ence can also watch the live feed on a screen (as it is nearly im­pos­si­ble to keep track of the speed­ing drones), and get to see what the pi­lots see. The elec­tronic tim­ing sys­tem on the course tracks and an­nounces the drones’ laps and tim­ing, so the au­di­ence can cheer on their favourites.

“We be­lieve that it is safe to have only four drones on the course dur­ing a heat. The race usu­ally has many heats. We had 42 pi­lots in our last race, so we had to di­vide them into mul­ti­ple groups of four. One heat takes about two min­utes – that is about the time most bat­ter­ies on the drones can last,” he says.

The race fol­lows an elim­i­na­tion for­mat, and the fastest drone to com­plete the track dur­ing the fi­nal heat wins.

There is also a freestyle event where pi­lots are given points based on ac­ro­batic ma­noeu­vres like turns, flips and loops.

DIY drones

In­stead of pur­chas­ing pre­built rac­ing drones, most, if not all, of the pi­lots pre­fer to build their own fly­ing machines.

“I just learned it from my friends and YouTube videos. It takes me five to six hours to build one, but that’s be­cause I’m still new to this. At first, I had dif­fi­cul­ties sol­der­ing the parts to­gether, but my friends taught me how. This is a such a friendly com­mu­nity be­cause even though

we com­pete with one another, ev­ery­one is al­ways will­ing to teach a new­comer and show how things are done,” says Mohd An­war Mohd Ridzuan, 32.

A com­pet­i­tive paraglider, An­war is cur­rently re­cov­er­ing from an in­jury, and is us­ing the down­time to im­merse him­self in drone rac­ing.

“I still feel like I’m fly­ing, so that’s what got me hooked,” he says with a smile. “Be­sides, drone rac­ing is def­i­nitely a cheaper hobby than paraglid­ing.”

A drone can cost about RM2,000 to RM5,000 to build – and that in­cludes a good, re­li­able pair of gog­gles. It would cost an ad­di­tional RM400 to RM3,000 for a ra­dio con­troller. Rac­ers will also need to in­vest in video trans­mit­ters, an­ten­nas, lots of bat­ter­ies and good charg­ers. Some pi­lots also at­tach GoPro cam­eras for their freestyle ses­sions, to record and edit the videos for later use.

Pi­lots are also ad­vised to in­stall high in­ten­sity LEDs at the front and rear of their air­craft. This is to en­sure that the drones are vis­i­ble es­pe­cially in low-light sit­u­a­tions.

Un­like the more pop­u­lar quad­copter, DJI Phan­tom, re­port­edly the world’s best-sell­ing con­sumer drone, the rac­ing drones look unglam­ourous and are much lighter. Some even weigh less than 500g each.

There are ded­i­cated shops that sell drone-re­lated equip­ment though many also pur­chase them on­line.

“Most of the rac­ers have spon­sors now. They get dif­fer­ent parts from dif­fer­ent ven­dors and put them all to­gether. It is fine as long as the rac­ing drone meets the com­pe­ti­tion spec­i­fi­ca­tions,” says Adam. “But for some races, we leave the specs open so the rac­ers can pretty much use what­ever high-end part or fast mo­tors that they want to use. That makes for an in­ter­est­ing show to watch.”

But as much as good ma­chin­ery is im­por­tant for rac­ing, Adam be­lieves that it all boils down to the pi­lot’s skills.

Safety first

The com­pe­ti­tions are mostly held at sanc­tioned open fields or park­ing lots, but first the or­gan­iser has to get per­mis­sion from The Depart­ment of Sur­vey and Map­ping Malaysia (Ju­pem), a depart­ment un­der the Min­istry of Nat­u­ral Re­sources and En­vi­ron­ment, as well as the Depart­ment of Civil Avi­a­tion (DCA), an agency un­der the Min­istry of Trans­port Malaysia.

“They give us the al­ti­tude that we can fly at, and it dif­fers for dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions. If the event is near an area that has heavy air traf­fic, they give us per­mits for lower al­ti­tudes,” says Adam, adding that if the event is held at a pri­vate prop­erty, they need per­mis­sion from the owner as well.

Malaysia Un­manned Drones Ac­tivist So­ci­ety (Mu­das) ex­ec­u­tive sec­re­tary Wil­liam Alvisse be­lieves that recre­ational drone pi­lots are re­spon­si­ble for fly­ing within the con­fines set by the DCA and Ju­pem.

Some of the guide­lines in­clude not fly­ing above 121.9m above ground level (Mul­tiGP Malaysian race track rarely goes above 2.4m); air­craft must al­ways be within line of sight; no fly­ing within five nau­ti­cal miles ra­dius of any air­port and no fly­ing over or within re­stricted, pro­hib­ited or dan­ger­ous ar­eas.

“You can­not fly the drones above crowded ar­eas,” says Alvisse so the track is al­ways fenced up with a 4.5m high net­ting to pro­tect the pi­lots and au­di­ence.

Mu­das also works with rep­utable in­sur­ance com­pa­nies to pro­vide in­sur­ance for pi­lots which cov­ers ac­ci­den­tal dam­age to a third-party and prop­erty.

“It took us a year to con­vince the in­sur­ance com­pany to come up with this plan, hop­ing that it would give drone pi­lots peace of mind know­ing that they are pro­tected if any un­to­ward in­ci­dents hap­pen,” says Alvisse.

Gain­ing pop­u­lar­ity

Drone rac­ing in Malaysia, as well as over­seas, is driven by so­cial me­dia, says Alvisse. “If so­cial me­dia didn’t ex­ist, this wouldn’t have taken off at the speed and rate that it has.”

The pi­lots have their own fan­base, with whom they con­nect via so­cial me­dia. YouTube, In­sta­gram and Face­book have been di­rect fac­tors in pro­mot­ing the sport and Adam sees a steady rise in the num­ber of fans ev­ery day.

He also be­lieves that the ex­po­sure from so­cial me­dia at­tracts new pi­lots to the com­pe­ti­tion, with some as young as 10. “Our last race cham­pion was a 12-year-old from In­done­sia, the first run­ner-up was an 11-yearold from Thai­land and the third place win­ner was a 30-year-old Malaysian. That is quite a big age dif­fer­ence right there, but these are chil­dren who grew up play­ing videogames, have good re­flexes and have just taken it to the next level,” Adam says.

Drone rac­ing is also a great way for in­di­vid­u­als, es­pe­cially young chil­dren, to get into Sci­ence, Tech­nol­ogy, Engi­neer­ing and Math­e­mat­ics (STEM) field.

“It re­ally is a good way to start them young and nur­ture their in­ter­est in sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy. We also con­duct work­shops that teach them how to build drones. By the first week they would build their first drone, and by the next week they would strip it down and build a new one them­selves. They are ab­so­lutely fast learn­ers,” says Alvisse.

Adam adds that this pas­sion should be en­cour­aged, as it could take the pi­lots places and put Malaysia on the in­ter­na­tional drone rac­ing map.

“It is still a new sport, and not ev­ery­one knows about it but be­lieve me drone rac­ing is not go­ing to go away,” says Adam. “If any­thing, it is only go­ing to get bet­ter, so we bet­ter get on board now.”

— RAY­MOND OOI/The Star

A cam­era at­tached to the front of the drone broad­casts live feed to the rac­ers’ gog­gles so the pi­lots have a sense of be­ing in the cock­pit.

The race fol­lows Mul­tiGP’s com­pe­ti­tion for­mat, and rac­ers are re­quired to ma­noeu­vre their drones on ob­sta­cle cour­ses. — Mul­tiGP Malaysia

— Mul­tiGP Malaysia

Only four drones (or fewer) are al­lowed to race on the track at any given time.

— RAY­MOND OOI/The Star

Adam (left) and Alvisse be­lieve that drone rac­ing is a sport worth fol­low­ing, as it could take the pi­lot places and put Malaysia on the drone rac­ing map.

— RAY­MOND OOI/The Star

Ariff (left) and An­war race drones pro­fes­sion­ally and have par­tic­i­pated in sev­eral com­pe­ti­tions or­gan­ised by Mul­tiGP Malaysia.

— Mul­tiGP Malaysia

The race fol­lows Mul­tiGP’s com­pe­ti­tion for­mat, as well as its rules and tech­ni­cal guide­lines.

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