Meet S. Korea’s 18-year-old world drone champion Kang Chang-hyeon in Hwaseong, south of Seoul, on Feb 20. (Photo: AFP)
In a South Korean rice field, the teenage world drone-racing champion is preparing to defend his title in one of the planet’s fastest and highest-tech sports.
But at all of 18 years old, Kang Chang-hyeon fears he is quickly passing his prime to compete at top flight levels.
On the starting signal, Kang and his three teammates send their craft buzzing furiously into the air and hurtling around an obstacle course set up on the bare earth in Hwaseong, south of Seoul.
The only human movement was the twitch of fingers on handsets, which the pilots use to control the aircraft while wearing virtual-reality goggles that give them a drone’s-eye view of the route.
Three laps and around one minute later, the race was over and the technical analysis began in a dedicated tent, with pilots, coaches, technicians and parents poring over flight data.
Like Formula One, drone-flying depends both on precision engineering and pilot skill.
Racing drones are custom-built by competitors and their teams, and reach speeds of up to 170kph. But races are so close, with timings measured in thousandth of a second. And it is a young flyer’s game.
Lightning-fast reflexes, visual sharpness and hours of training are the key to success, according to Kang. He says he is already facing physical decline as a new generation of younger rivals arrives, some of them still in primary school.
“Those qualities are the best in your early- to mid-teenage years,” said the still pimply-faced pilot.
Kang said his reflexes were “inevitably” slowing with each passing year, and he was not ruling out retirement before turning 20.
It will be “pretty tough to compete against them in my adult years,” he said. “I think I may not make it past this year.”