Sales of remote-controlled drones are on the rise among hobbyists

Drone racers love the thrill of capturing views from the air but the machines' popularity has raised concerns

PhD researcher Ervine Lin, 33, lawyer Roe Yun Song, tutor Gan Weili, 33, medical technologist Alvin Wong, 26, and IT engineer Aramid Lee, 35, flying drones. The unmanned aerial vehicles can take pictures or videos from the air (above). -- PHOTO: HARR
PhD researcher Ervine Lin, 33, lawyer Roe Yun Song, tutor Gan Weili, 33, medical technologist Alvin Wong, 26, and IT engineer Aramid Lee, 35, flying drones. The unmanned aerial vehicles can take pictures or videos from the air (above). -- PHOTO: HARRY CHUA
(Above, from left) PhD researcher Ervine Lin, 33, lawyer Roe Yun Song, tutor Gan Weili, 33, medical technologist Alvin Wong, 26, and IT engineer Aramid Lee, 35, flying drones. The unmanned aerial vehicles can take pictures or videos from the air. -- PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

On weekends, you will find hobbyists dotting the open fields in areas such as old Holland Road, Tuas and Punggol.

Armed with chairs, hats and insect repellent, they watch eagerly as grass blades whirr and remote-controlled machines lift off into the air. But these are not radiocontrolled plane enthusiasts - instead, they are there to raise drones.

Watching eagerly as their batterypowered drones respond to their toggling on a remote controller by shifting and dipping, these drone racers bond as they put their machines through their paces.

Sales of these drones have doubled in the three years they have been available here, though their popularity has flagged privacy concerns that drone cameras could invade people's personal spaces.

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, are usually controlled via a remote or smartphone. They can take pictures or videos from the air and typically fly as high as 1km.

There are few flying spaces in Singapore, so drone enthusiasts tend to meet often and chat, says Mr Garry Huang, 32, who owns an online business selling drone parts and flies drones with his friends occasionally at an open field in Tanjong Rhu.

He met tutor Gan Weili, 33, last year at a field along Tampines Industrial Avenue, and the pair formed an informal group with eight other drone hobbyists, linked via a WhatsApp chat group.

Having company makes the activity fun, says Mr Gan, who discusses his selfassembled $800 drone with the group.

Another group meets on weekends at a field along Sembawang Drive, headed by Mr Eddie Chan, 46, the owner of Hobby Square LLP, which sells drone sets.

More formal groups include Radio Modellers Singapore, whose members fly model aircraft at a field in Tuas.

Last week, a video of drones dropping off cartons of Coca-Cola at the South Beach construction site went viral, attracting more than 310,000 views, and last year, online retailer Amazon said it was testing package-delivering drones to get packages to customers in 30 minutes or less.

From as little as $50, hobbyists can buy recreational drones from at least six shops selling them here. Drones are classified by weight, varying from less than 500g to more than 10kg.

Customers are mostly male, aged 20 and above, and from the construction, engineering or IT industries, say sellers.

Sky Hobbies owner Derrick Tan, 43, says he sells about 10 drone sets a month, twice what he sold three years ago. His sets, which cost between $100 and $1,500, are popular as drones get more user-friendly.

For example, models such as the DJI Phantom are "ready to fly out of the box", he says, compared with earlier versions which required assembly.

At RCE Hobby, which sells DIY parts for drones, such as radio-controlled sets and motors, business has doubled in the past three years, says owner Chong Kim Joo, 50.

Rotor Hobby owner Lee Poo Kang, 64, brought in drone sets after seeing consumers take to the activity at trade shows in China. He sells more than 10 sets a month, each costing between $50 and $1,400 - a 10 per cent rise since he started.

Flying a drone, says Mr Lee, is more stable compared with flying a model plane or helicopter. For example, a hobby drone has a rubber base which absorbs vibration and its multiple propellers land it upright.

Enthusiast Uday Hassan knows this well - having crashed his remote-controlled helicopter many times.

The 35-year-old, who runs his own gemstone business, started playing with a $85 drone and now owns another costing more than $1,000. Attaching a camera adds to the thrill of viewing land by air, he says. "I get to be a pilot and gracefully hover over areas which I can explore, rather than just looking up from the ground."

But the use of hobby drones with cameras has raised privacy concerns. There is no law now specifically targeting those who use drones.

As long as you are doing something in the privacy of your home, no one should be able to film without your consent, says lawyer George Hwang. Anyone who does so can be in potential breach of confidential information, he adds.

However, if a picture or video of you is taken from an adjoining property, it may not be against the law as there is no trespassing, says lawyer Hoh Chin Cha. There is no law which gives a person a right to privacy, he adds, unless an action leads to nuisance or trespass.

"If someone walks along the HDB common corridor and looks into your unit, you cannot stop it," he explains.

Flying a drone above a person's home could be trespass, however, because the person owns a certain amount of airspace above it, says Mr Hwang.

Still, hobbyists say they try to fly in open areas, away from homes and buildings, to avoid crashes.

Assistant engineer Harry Chua, 55, who started the hobby three months ago with a GoPro camera attached to his $1,180 drone, says he flies in open areas to take aerial videos and to avoid injuring bystanders and crashing his device.

When asked about privacy concerns, he says: "I don't fly close to people's homes so as not to invade their privacy. Its propellers are quite loud so I don't think it is possible to follow a person by stealth anyway."

An uplifting time

The most comforting thing about powering a drone, compared with a model airplane or helicopter, is its "return to home" function.

This is a fail-safe function where your drone returns safely to its takeoff location based on a GPS signal, should you lose control of it.

Considering a hobby drone can costmore than $1,000, and many hobbyists have described the pain of crashing their device and replacing pricey parts to me, this seems useful.

Particularly for beginners, the DJI Phantom 2 Vision I was flying is "quite idiot-proof", a hobbyist tells me. The device has a range of up to 1km and images taken on its camera are linked via wi-fi to a smartphone.

I am at an open field in Outram Park on a Thursday. As the motor starts, there is the thrill of watching grass blades whirring beneath and the machine taking flight.

It is also an experience seeing the view on the phone. The images are about the same quality as iPhone photos, although I'm told that some hobbyists attach more expensive cameras to get higher quality shots.

Despite the thrill of controlling a flying object, the sun's glare makes viewing - even via the phone - difficult. I am told by a hobbyist that the activity is best done in the evening.

I can imagine that more experienced enthusiasts would get a greater thrill out of racing their drones in mid-air, or swerving them past trees.

For this beginner, it takes massive hand-eye coordination, which I sorely lack. But I dream of the gorgeous aerial pictures - privacy concerns notwithstanding - that a drone can capture in a scenic location abroad. Time to pack one of these babies on my next holiday.

Kezia Toh

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