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Read this before you get a drone

So you’ve got lofty ambitions with that new drone in your hands. Peter Yeo uncovers what you need to know before getting started

Drones. Everyone – from your neighbour’s children to your aunt – is flying one.

With a drone, you too could take once unreachable aerial shots like this bird’s eye snap (above). Some drones are so simple to pilot, you can get them from a heartland supermarket, pull them out of the box and begin flying in no time.

However, with drones in the news these days, such as the drone incursions at Changi Airport, how do you know if you’re flying into trouble? Your best bet, says NTU’s resident drone expert Prof Low Kin Huat, is to head to the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) website to learn the dos and don’ts of drone flying before taking your maiden flight.

As a gesture of goodwill, most drone retailers will point new fliers to the relevant websites to learn the basics of flying a drone. It is most important to note where the no-flying zones are. In short, don’t fly your drone in a manner that poses a risk to aviation and public safety. So far, one company has been fined $9,000, while two individuals have been taken to court for flying within 5km of the Paya Lebar Air Base. If found guilty, they could face a fine of up to $20,000. Likewise, NTU falls within the 5km confines of a no-fly zone and anyone hoping to pilot a drone on campus should have a permit.

Ready? Let’s get flying.

Choose your drone

Drones range from cheap, remote-controlled quadcopters available at toy shops and even NTUC FairPrice, to recreational and professional flying machines, say drone enthusiasts. For example, the Mavic by drone-maker DJI falls into the recreational category. It’s mostly used for leisure, such as aerial photography and videography.

In the professional range are those like the DJI Inspire, which is used by filmmakers as the video quality is of a higher resolution. Commercial drones carry heavier payloads such as higher-end cameras, and may come with thermal imaging and other sensors. They are also used by security agencies.

New drone pilots should get their hands wet with “toy” drones that are cheaper, weigh less than 200g and cost not more than $20, as it’s not uncommon for beginner fliers to crash their drone or lose it in a tree.

Drone play play

A quick and non-exhaustive guide for leisure fliers (without permit):

  • Don’t fly an aircraft weighing more than 7kg.
  • Your drone must not be flown higher than 200 feet (about 60m).
  • Don’t fly within 5km of an airport or a military airbase and over restricted or prohibited areas.
  • Keep your aircraft within your sight at all times.
  • Drones must not be flown over crowds or near property and other aircraft.
  • In Singapore’s parks, look out for “No flying” signs. For the safety of others and to protect our green spaces and wildlife, always fly your drone in a safe and responsible manner.
  • Drones must not interfere with emergency service providers or be flown over moving vehicles.

For more information on Singapore’s drone laws, visit the CAAS website.

Game of drones

From zero to 60 km/h in 1.3 seconds, drone racing offers tech aficionados the thrill of the chase as both pilot and mechanic

Third-year aerospace engineering student Faheem Bin Fawzi was only 10 when he started flying remote control helicopters. He then changed gear to pilot remote control fixed wing planes, eventually levelling up to compete in Malaysia, says the shy pilot who is the chief flight instructor at the NTU Aerospace Society.

His most recent flight challenge was at the Singapore Amazing Flying Machine Competition organised by DSO National Laboratories, where the intrepid aviator raced his custom drone around a fixed flight path while avoiding obstacles.

“It’s not as difficult as it sounds. In FPV drone racing, you’re looking through the lens of the drone – like if you were an actual pilot in the mini machines. So, relative to the view, the obstacles are huge,” he shares. “The tougher part is keeping the drones in the air while trying to go as fast as possible.”

FPV, or first-person view, drone racing is the new kid on the competitive sports block and looks set to become a multi-million-dollar mainstream sport.

There are two race components, explains Faheem. “Try to clock the fastest lap and complete the most number of laps in a designated time. Of course, if you crash out on an obstacle or collide with another drone, you’re most likely out of the game. In fact, one small mistake and you are usually out of the running. The expert racers are so fast that you won’t be able to catch up.”

Racing drones isn’t purely for the joy of the chase, he admits. Racers tend to be engineering aficionados who custom build their minute racers. Each tiny racer is essentially a computer board with rotors and a camera, Faheem explains. His experience from building his own drones and remote control planes and helicopters has given him a leg-up in his studies. “Many of the abstract concepts related to pitch, yaw and roll, and even PID (proportional integral derivative) controllers, I had already known before the prof even spoke about them in my aerospace classes. And it’s all thanks to years of practical flight time.”

Faheem doesn’t yet have his sights set on the bright lights of the FPV drone aerodrome. “It’s more of a hobby for me,” he says bashfully. “I’d much rather work on full-size planes when I graduate.”