Tuesday 23 Jul 2024
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This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on October 24, 2022 - October 30, 2022

Zipping around obstacles at 125kph and leaving trails of spectacular bright lights as they weave through crowds of onlookers, drone racing is taking the world by storm. Although only a decade old, the exhilarating sport packed with nail-biting races and eye-catching displays of tricks is attracting millions of audiences globally. According to the internationally-renowned professional Drone Racing League (DRL), the viewership for its last season (which ran from Sept 29, 2021, to Feb 20 this year) reached 250 million households in more than 140 markets worldwide.

While drone racing is relatively nascent in Malaysia, there are already some 40 professional pilots competing globally. Among the efforts to establish a robust drone sports ecosystem is the country’s first-ever National Academy for Drone Sports Excellence (Aksadron). Spearheaded by Cyberview Sdn Bhd’s wholly-owned subsidiary Futurise Sdn Bhd, Aksadron has been tasked with developing the National Drone Sports Strategic Roadmap (Nadsar).

“Nadsar aims to create a future in which drone racing is fully valued, accepted and recognised as a competitive and recreational sports activity,” Futurise CEO Rosihan Zain tells Digital Edge. “Aksadron will collaborate with various industry players and agencies such as the Malaysian Sports Aviation Federation (MSAF), Civil Aviation Authority of Malaysia (CAAM), Institut Sukan Negara, Ministry of Youth and Sports, and Drone Racing Association Malaysia (DRAM).”

Drones — a catch-all word for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — are no longer just recreational gizmos. Outfitted with Internet of Things sensors, artificial intelligence (AI) and data analytics widgets, UAVs that have first person video, autonomous capabilities, or both, have unearthed plenty of opportunities in agriculture, energy, surveillance and humanitarian aid, to name a few.

And, Malaysia has long harboured aspirations of becoming a regional drone powerhouse. Since 2017, the Malaysian Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) has been working to establish an all-encompassing drone ecosystem, hoping to capture a fraction of the global market — which, in 2020, was valued at US$19.23 billion and is projected to reach US$63.05 billion by 2028, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 16.01% from 2021 to 2028.

In 2020, MDEC set up the DroneTech Testbed Initiative — in collaboration with The World Economic Forum — to fast-track growth of the drone tech industry and develop the regulatory framework necessary to ensure safe flying, increase adoption and improve Malaysia’s position in the Drone Readiness Index Ranking, among others. The prospective industry received a fresh impetus in September, when then prime minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob announced that the government would be formulating the Malaysian Drone Technology Action Plan 2022-2030 (MDTAP30), coordinated by the Malaysian Research Accelerator for Technology and Innovation (MRANTI), to further bolster the drone ecosystem. Ismail also said then that the Traffic Management for Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS-TM) would be developed to improve the efficiency of the drone operator registration process to increase UAS registration by 2030.

“With the ever-evolving drone technology, the country’s drone industry is expected to grow exponentially and generate growth of RM50.71 billion to the gross domestic product. According to the data shared by Sirim, there will be a total of 62,877 imported unmanned aerial systems (UAS),” says Captain Norazman Mahmud, director of flight operations at CAAM. UAS not only include UAVs, but also the individuals on the ground controlling the flight as well as the system that requires UAVs to run smoothly.

Gaining traction

At a glance, drone racing may appear to be a pursuit of pleasure for aerial hobbyists. Still, the activity could potentially cultivate Malaysian talent to meet the demands of the expanding drone industry, say industry observers. Moreover, Transparency Market Research states that drone racing is expected to reach a market value of US$786 million by 2027. This, including increasing viewership of drone sports, indicates that the sport is well on its way to becoming a global powerhouse.

The DRL, for example, also serves as a testing ground and incubator for emerging technologies around drones. Moreover, DRL streams its races on platforms and networks such as NBC, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, Fox Sports, Sky Sports, ProSieben and Weibo.

Professional drone pilot Ryan Shadrach Dev, whose interest was spurred when his uncle bought him a small drone, concurs. Before he knew it, he was completely immersed in the sport. “The part that excites me about drone racing is the thrill of [controlling a device that has the ability] to fly freely like a wild bird. And, also being able to race faster than a Formula One car, a thrill that comes cheaper than most other sports of its kind.”

For a full year, Ryan was primarily interested in simulators before a friend introduced him to the drone community. Drone pilots undergo a steep learning curve to master their craft and be at one with the vehicle.

“Nothing compares to first person view (FPV) drone racing as a sport since it’s one of a kind, and one of the few that utilises a combination of digital interactions with real life to make it happen,” says Ryan. “I got involved in a lot of community sports and events. The year 2021 is when it kicked off for me. [Drone race organiser] D1 Racing in Singapore had a virtual league for drone racing. That’s where I got involved for technically my first racing event.

“I finally got involved in physical racing this year with the Covid-19 pandemic [appearing to recede] and finally getting clearance to race physically. That’s when I won my first actual race, under the MultiGP league in Kuala Lumpur.”

MultiGP, which originated in the US, currently organises drone racing leagues in over 700 chapters internationally.

“The ability to also enjoy it with friends around you and have a great time make it a wonderful and safe experience that doesn’t involve any injury, as long as safety is taken seriously.”

Competitions vary between races and freestyle shows. Races are based on speed and accuracy, while freestyle shows allow pilots to showcase their talents. Racing can be done outdoors, indoors as well as virtually. 

There are also competitions that test the skills of pilots in new ways. Drone soccer resembles a game of Quidditch from the Harry Potter novels, with drones buzzing around while the strikers attempt to score a goal.

In July, Ryan, who was part of the team sponsored by MRANTI, represented Malaysia in the 2022 FAI Korea Drone Race World Cup. The last FAI championship was held in Xiangshan Ningbo, China, but was halted in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic.

Once Nadsar is rolled out, Futurise’s Rosihan hopes that the growing craze in the world of sports will be more appealing to the locals. To do so, Nadsar has set its sights on establishing a few key objectives by 2027. These include establishing a resilient drone sports industry that provides broad and long-lasting socio-economic benefits; creating career opportunities for the national talent pool of drone sports technicians and pilots; creating a highly competitive sports ecosystem from grassroots to professional teams; having an integrated database system supported by a centralised big-data analytics framework; and coming up with testing facilities and clear governance and user-friendly procedures for drone sports.

In accordance with the 12th Malaysia Plan, Nadsar will focus on the development of drone sports at the grassroots level that promotes science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)-related activities and supports the plan by developing future talent, and accelerating technology and innovation.

“Nadsar [will also] support MyDIGITAL objectives by encouraging industry players to become creators, users and adopters of innovative business models within the drone sports context, harness the human capital potential of the STEM skills set through exposure and participation in drone sports, and nurture an integrated ecosystem that allows society to adopt and explore drone sports,” says Rosihan.

Safety first

In order to create a thriving racing ecosystem, safety and regulatory kinks too need to be ironed out. Although drone racing — in which the pilot wears a head-mounted display that comes in the form of goggles that directly feed visuals from the drone’s camera to the headset — is somewhat of a virtual thrill, a key aspect of a successful drone race is safety as it involves fast-spinning propellers, which make the drones potentially dangerous flying objects.

“At FAI Korea, there were fires during and before the race when the drones were being tuned in the protected net areas,” Ryan recalls. “There was one drone where the battery completely went up in flames and the pilot had to quickly disconnect it and throw it as far away as possible before he burnt himself.”

For Malaysia to be internationally competitive in drone sports comprehensive regulation, a well-equipped research and development centre for drone technology and more Approved Training Organisations for Remote Pilot Training Organisations (ATO-RPTO) are required, says CAAM’s Norazman.

An ATO-RPTO assesses the competency of remote pilots against a specific set of requirements and issues the appropriate certificates. To date, CAAM has certified UAV Academy of Asia Sdn Bhd and Air Asia Group Bhd as ATO-RPTO.

As there are no formalised international guidelines to follow, CAAM will use alternate means of compliance. As a safety and security regulator, it will run risk assessment measures.

Norazman says the CAAM will adhere to the best practices set by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) sporting code. FAI is the world governing body for air sports.

“Around the world, people have been drone racing already. However, there needs to be enforcement of safety features such as netting, crowd control and frequency control. We work with many agencies on this as well. For example, in regard to frequency, we work with the MCMC [the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission] and when it comes to equipment, Sirim will come in.”

In terms of regulations for drone sports, these will differ from the ones governing drones used in other settings. This is because it will be too restrictive to impose the rules for commercial drones on racing drones.

The MSAF is working with Aksadron, the CAAM and other regulatory stakeholders, on a regulatory framework for drone sports. The MSAF is the governing body for all sports and aviation activities in the country.

Currently, there are no regulations for drone sports. What can be done is to comply with the sporting code published by the FAI. For example, the FAI sporting code for multi-rotor drone racing includes general specifications for the models such as their weight and size, motorisation and radio control equipment. Details of the sporting code further include racing track specifications, procedures for event organisation and instructions for flight occurrences. Flight occurrences include crashes, disqualification from the race and destruction of obstacles during a race.

Norazman provides an analogy of how the legal age to receive a driver’s licence around the world tends to be 18. However, a talented Formula 1 racer will be able to race on a track even at 15 or 16 years old. This will be in a controlled environment, in a race circuit governed by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, which ensures the circuit is safe and the car used to race complies with the specifications set. Nevertheless, the minute the underage racer steps out of the circuit, he will not be able to drive as he will have to adhere to civil laws.

In the past months, the CAAM has approved two drone racing events. To qualify, organisers will have to perform a risk assessment and disclose safety measures before the event is approved.

Space to practice, too, is essential to drone racing. However, with not many specifically sanctioned locations for enthusiasts, this has been one of the barriers preventing more participation in the sport.

“In the US, there are hobby fields for people to play with their model aeroplanes and whatnot. We don’t have it here. The real problem I see right now in terms of this hobby is that we don’t have a proper space,” Ryan laments. “There needs to be segregation between public parks and hobby fields.”

When Ryan was in South Korea, he realised the citizens had the advantage of having more space in their region. “They set up big tracks for practice. Each team has a major track for themselves, it’s really impressive how much they have in terms of space. They can reconstruct full events in their own space,” he explains.

Aksadron is looking to fill this gap once its drone sports zone in Kuantan is completed. The arena will feature a racing track with space for drone control, spectator areas and a control tower. Aksadron is in the final stages of the procurement process and construction began in September. The facility is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

Raising awareness

A lack of familiarity with the sport is another barrier. This was apparent to Ryan when he travelled to South Korea. As his bag with lithium polymer batteries passed the X-ray machine for security clearance, the South Korean airport security authorities were nonchalant about it as it was a normal sight for them. In Malaysia, the batteries always warrant a second look.

“You can see that the South Koreans understand the sport. It’s so widespread to the point that a lot of people know about it.

“There were a lot of serious drone racing teams in South Korea, with proper segregation of team players and coaches. They have a younger audience because the majority of the pilots are students,” he says.

To overcome this, Aksadron plans a series of awareness programmes nationwide annually to promote drone sports.

Also, drone sports are too often underestimated for their potential to nurture an interest in STEM, says Ryan.

A racing drone includes a variety of components with which pilots need to familiarise themselves. They include the frame or body, radio receiver, FPV camera, video transmitter, FPV antenna, power distribution board, propeller, motors and others. STEM is understandably integrated for drone hobbyists, he points out.

“This hobby teaches a lot of life skills. Being involved in drone racing has helped me get a lot of things done in real life that I don’t normally do, like repairing my appliances. I’ve learnt how to repair my television as well as water pumps. I’ve gained a lot of skills that translate to real life.”

Meanwhile, Rosihan of Futurise says: “It isn’t uncommon for drone pilots to discuss 5G, robotics, AI and other emerging technologies. This is the language of drone sports.

“Youth interest in STEM education will inspire the creation and development of the next generation of engineers, technologists and innovators, and this is what Aksadron would like to achieve with its training programme.

“Aksadron is keen to adopt and develop this initiative to create exciting, tech-driven career opportunities for students not only as drone athletes, but that are also transferable to a commercial career path as well,” says Rosihan.

To achieve this goal, Aksadron will pioneer UAS development programmes with classrooms, workshops, flight simulators and accommodation.

“Aksadron is an academy to produce talents. We have already started engaging with institutions in Malaysia to get involved in the publication and certification of our programmes,” says Muhaimin Osman, vice-president of drones and aeromodelling at MSAF.

Drone racing does not involve only pilots. It comes with coaches, technicians, track designers and those who manage the video and timing systems. But currently, there are only private classes that focus entirely on piloting, adds Muhaimin.

“In five years, we want to create a pool of talent. At MSAF, we want to marry the essence of drone sports, which is appealing to the youth, with STEM.”

Safety certifications, training spaces and awareness aside, racers need to participate in more competitions to hone their skills, adds Ryan. This is a problem as there currently isn’t a central body overseeing the development of drone sports and competitions locally, which is why the traction in the drone sports industry has been fragmented, he points out.

“We don’t have a proper body to handle drone racing. There is no one controlling this properly,” Ryan states.

The impetus has fallen onto MSAF and DRAM. Both associations have taken the initiative to spur the industry. DRAM holds the MultiGP franchise in Malaysia and has organised several local competitions, the winners of which have gone on to represent the country in MultiGP and FAI-sanctioned events.

Meanwhile, as a member of the FAI, MSAF is in the midst of bidding for the FAI World Drone Racing Championship 2023 to be held in Malaysia.

Aksadron is currently in talks with the respective stakeholders to introduce the Malaysian Drone League, in which the best local players from various states would be invited to compete.

“Once Aksadron’s facility is up and running by end-2022, we envisage all local and international competitions, at least the final stages, will be held in Paya Besar, Pahang, while preliminary races could be held in other states,” says Futurise’s Rosihan.

Despite all the current shortcomings, Ryan believes the sport will withstand the test of time.

“I persevered in drone racing because I enjoy the thrill and experience it has given me over the years, like being able to spend time outdoors on weekends, instead of being indoors playing video games or eating out at expensive cafés,” Ryan ruminates. “It also gives me the opportunity to make a name for myself in a sport I truly love.”

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