NEED FOR SPEED
Drone racing is spreading its wings in Malaysia, attracting fans who build their own machines and fly competitively.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
Only four drones (or fewer) are allowed to race on the track at any given time.
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.
Ariff (left) and Anwar race drones professionally and have participated in several competitions organised by MultiGP Malaysia.
The race follows MultiGP’s competition format, as well as its rules and technical guidelines.