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Drone racing and its potential in Malaysia

  • Global drone market in 2021 estimated to be worth US$26.3bil
  • Malaysians already competing despite lack of overall governing body

Moderator, Reem Shahwa of Astra Sports (left) with panellists Captain Illyaquila Fateen Ismail (2nd left), Nadhirah Azman (3rd left), Muhaimin Osman (2nd right) and Zamri Abdullah (right) with Futurise executives.

The sport of drone racing, although relatively new, has its roots in the hobby of flying remote control model aircrafts. Despite its heritage, the sport remains relatively obscure.

Realising the potential in it, Futurise Sdn Bhd, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Cyberview Sdn Bhd, in March, launched Malaysia’s first National Academy for Drone Sports Excellence (Aksadron) in Kuantan, Pahang.

The 3.15 acres (1.27ha) are not only meant to be the centre for everything that has to do with drone flying and drone racing, but they also hold the hopes of everyone involved with the activity to make it more mainstream.


To Encourage Students To Learn More

Aiming to further build on the momentum, Futurise and Aksadron recently organized a REGTalk forum, titled “Drone Sports: Can Malaysia Dominate this Emerging Sport?”

Panellists consisted of Nadhirah Azman, Ministry of Education Malaysia, Sports, Co-curricular and Arts Division Assistant Director; Zamri Abdullah, Universiti Teknologi Petronas (UTP) Centre for Student Technopreneurship Office Manager; Muhaimin Osman, Malaysian Sports Aviation VP for Aeromodelling & Drones; and Captain Illyaquila Fateen Ismail, CAAM Flight Operations Assistant Director.

Rosihan Zain Baharudin, Futurise CEO set the stage with his opening remarks where he emphasised Futurise’s belief in the spirit of collaboration that the agency seeks as it works to form a comprehensive National Drone Sport Strategic Roadmap with input from relevant stakeholders.

“Hence this talk is especially meaningful as it forms part of our engagement to yield meaningful relationships, knowledge sharing, scoping of issues and fostering a spirit of collaboration towards creating a strong roadmap to foster and accelerate a strong national drone sport sector that can be globally competitive.”

The conversation did not disappoint with Nadhirah explaining how the government looks at flying drones as a subtle way to encourage school students to learn about engineering and programming.

She said that some schools across Malaysia have already picked up drone flying as a co-curriculum. It is used as an extension of teaching students STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

“We look at the objective of the co-curriculum. As long as it compliments the education, we recognise it,” said Nadirah. She gave the example of a drone challenge where students are tasked to learn coding to fly the drone autonomously.

Currently, the ministry's support of drone flying and drone racing is limited to using school clubs and endorsing competitions to cultivate the pool of talent needed to establish Malaysia as a major player in the sport.

However, she said, getting more support from the government, will require further discussions with the higher-ups in the ministry.

 Back in July a Malaysian team competed in the 2022 FAI Korea Drone Race World Cup. Drone industry observers expect to see Malaysian teams be competitive at global drone race competitions.

At the university level

Institutes of higher learning in Malaysia are noticing the potential of drone racing as well. Zamri said UTP first organised its drone race, where students had to not only fly but built their drone, back in 2019.

The reception was better than expected. The entrance fee for the event, which includes a workshop was US$34 (RM150) per person and the cost of a drone was approximately US$454 (RM2,000). According to Zamri, 8 teams of three members each participated.

“Since then we have organised several levels of programmes. Those designed for awareness and championships are open to all, but others are structured and targeted to ensure success,” said Zamri.

He hopes that institutes of higher learning witnessing an increase in student interest in the sport would receive collaboration and support from the relevant ministries.


What is drone racing?

Just like football where there are several leagues and motor sports where there are several categories, drone racing is not defined by just one standardised race. Muhaimin explained that people are still experimenting when it comes to racing formats around the world, with several leagues each with its own rules and regulations.

“For example, some races are done outdoors, some are indoors, and some are semi-indoors where drones fly in and out of structures,” said Muhaimin, adding that the creativity of the “tracks” for these races is astounding.

He gave an example of a drone racing team that consists of a coach, three pilots and three technicians.

“There is room for everyone to participate. The non-racers can be in the technical team, be part of the crew, or a coach.”

He also pointed out that drone races are not limited by gender or age.

However, he explains that to an enthusiast, the biggest challenge in the sport is the lack of a singular government body to both champion and regulate it.

“Drones in itself can be complicated. The Civil Aviation Authority of Malaysia (CAAM) only covers commercial drones. While some drones are commercial, some are technology-centric, and some are for sports,” said Muhaimin.

He added that new and interested pilots are not even sure where they can fly their drones and they would either fly their crafts illegally or not at all.


A webbed framework

This is not to say there are not regulations. Malaysia already has a regulatory framework for drones, pointed out Captain Illyaquila. “It’s a risk-based framework.”

It is also handled by multiple agencies at many levels such as Sirim, Department of Survey and Mapping (JUPEM), Chief Government Security Officer (CGSO), and the CAAM.

However, for drone racing, a lot of it is still up to the race organisers to solve.

She also noted that drone makers need to talk more about safety, security, and privacy. “Answer this question honestly: do you feel safe if a two-meter drone is flying over your house, out of sight?”


In the eyes of the world

In the meantime, Malaysians are already participating in drone races in the international circuit.

Back in July Amiruddin Mohamad Khairi (20), Ryan Shadrach Dev (23), and Muhammad Adam Mohd Khuzairi (21), competed in the 2022 FAI Korea Drone Race World Cup.

The unofficial Team Malaysia is the result of the collaboration between two local drone associations, MYDrone and Drone Racing Association Malaysia (DRAM).

According to Drone Industry Insight, the drone market is worth US$26.3 billion in 2021 and is estimated to grow to US$41.3 billion by 2026.

[RM1 = US$0.227]


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