Drone racing takes off

Drone racers (from left) Xu Zhuohua, Wong Wen Jie and Garry Huang get their speed fix in an open field and can view the landscape from their drones' perspective on a mounted monitor (below).
Drone racers (above) Xu Zhuohua, Wong Wen Jie and Garry Huang get their speed fix in an open field and can view the landscape from their drones' perspective on a mounted monitor.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM
Drone racers (from left) Xu Zhuohua, Wong Wen Jie and Garry Huang get their speed fix in an open field and can view the landscape from their drones' perspective on a mounted monitor (below).
Drone racers Xu Zhuohua, Wong Wen Jie and Garry Huang get their speed fix in an open field and can view the landscape from their drones' perspective on a mounted monitor (above).ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Drone enthusiasts are getting a thrill racing their unmanned aircraft in open fields here

It is not the Clone Wars in Star Wars, but it is close.

Drawn to the adrenaline rush, speed and thrill of piloting drones, groups of men mostly in their 30s and 40s are spending their weekends at open fields in Punggol, Old Holland Road and Tuas to see who can fly the fastest and most skilfully.

In drone racing, a CCTV camera installed on each drone transmits video via radio signals to a mounted monitor or special video goggles.

Racers watch this video and see the world from the drone's perspective.

They also control the drones, which can fly over obstacles and do stunts such as turns, somersaults, dips, flips and barrel rolls.

The drones can go up to 120km an hour - faster than a speeding car.

When you are darting under obstacles and flying close to the ground, it gets the adrenaline pumping.''

DRONE RACER ERVINE LIN

Says an enthusiast, PhD researcher Ervine Lin, 33: "When you are darting under obstacles and flying close to the ground, it gets the adrenaline pumping."

Adds another racer, sports consultant Mohammed Zacky, 35: "It's an immersive experience, like you're strapped in the machine yourself. You can go anywhere, in any direction."

A spokesman for the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) says those seeking to race drones in Singapore have to apply for permits.

She says: "There are significant safety risks from drone racing, such as the speed at which the unmanned aircraft is operated and the proximity to spectators of the unmanned aircraft during the race.

"CAAS will issue the necessary permits only if we are satisfied that safety risks will be adequately addressed."

Typically weighing about 500g each and measuring 30cm in diameter, racing drones are smaller and lighter than those used for photography.

They are available at some hobby shops here, and racing drones are also cheaper and can cost from $300 to $1,000. The pricier models are generally lighter or have more powerful engines.

Mr Garry Huang, 34, owner of Drone Matters, a local company which customises and sells racing drones, says: "It's common for drones to crash to the ground or into a tree.

"The drone's body - typically made of carbon fibre - can withstand such crashes. You usually need to replace only the propellers, which cost $1 or $2 each."

In recent years, the sport has caught on in countries such as New Zealand, Australia, Germany, the United States, China and Japan.

Enthusiasts say the informal weekend races here started last year. According to estimates, there are more than 500 drone racers here - all of them amateurs. Some drone interest groups organise meet-ups through their Facebook pages or WhatsApp group chats.

Official drone races have also been held here.

One, organised by the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore, took place at Suntec Singapore Convention & Exhibition Centre in April this year and drew about 80 participants.

Another, organised by Singapore Polytechnic's aviation club, took place on the institution's premises two months ago. It had 24 participants.

Those in the open category had to race around a track, flying over obstacles and under airgates. They also had to perform tight, 270-degree turns with precision and speed.

University student Wong Wen Jie, 23, emerged champion in the category, winning $2,000 worth of drone parts.

He says: "To win, you need not only speed, but also skill. If you go fast but cannot corner well, you will fly off the course and get disqualified."

Every weekend, he races with a group of friends. About 10 of them usually show up, although only four can race at any one time without radio-frequency interference, he says.

Under the Unmanned Aircraft (Public Safety and Security) Act, which came into force two months ago, drone operators need an operator and an activity permit from CAAS to fly an unmanned aircraft that weighs more than 7kg, or for any business purpose, or if the operation is not recreational in nature or for research.

Says the CAAS spokesman: "The definition of recreation excludes organised group sporting activities such as drone racing."

The drone racers Life spoke to say they intend to abide by the rules. There have been no instances of damage to property, they say, even when their drones crash.

Says Mr Wong: "We are very particular about safety and generally hold our races in places that are deserted anyway.

"We don't want our drones to interfere with other people or want others to interfere with our race."

Catch the thrills of drone racing in this video str.sg/ZnGB

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 09, 2015, with the headline 'Drone racing takes off'. Print Edition | Subscribe