Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Past his peak? South Korea’s drone racing world champ says so – at 18



Past his peak? South Korea’s drone racing world champ says so – at 18

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Teenaged pilots controls drones as teenaged drone-racing champion Kang Chang-hyeon (centre) looks on during a training session at a rice field in Hwaseong, south of Seoul. AFP

Past his peak? South Korea’s drone racing world champ says so – at 18

In A South Korean rice field, the teenage drone-racing world 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 twitches 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 170km/h. 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.”

One 12-year-old girl already has him in her sights.

“When I first met Kang Chang-hyeon, I was in awe of him and it felt like a dream,” said Jeong Ryeo-won, after taking part in a league round in the southern county of Hadong.

But now she “really wants” to beat him: “He is my role model, so I hope to compete against him at the world championships, but win.”

Split second

Only three years after first flying a toy drone, Kang, at age 16, took the world title at a 2019 championship in China, where South Korean pilots dominated.

“Maintaining composure is key to winning because a split-second decision can determine the outcome of a race,” he said.

“Minimising your mistakes while staying calm regardless of who’s ahead of you is critical.”

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Drones taking flight during a drone-racing training session at a rice field in Hwaseong, south of Seoul. AFP

Kang’s high school in rural Hongseong county has sought to capitalise on his success by promoting itself as a specialist drone school – with Kang as its ambassador – offering lessons in piloting to attract more pupils.

But the coronavirus pandemic deprived him of the chance to defend his crown at the peak of his abilities, when the Swiss-based Federation Aeronautique Internationale, the world governing body for air sports, was forced to cancel the 2020 world championships.

“I could have competed really well last year,” he said.

Military mission

Like other young South Korean men achieving global success, from pop stars BTS to Spurs striker Son Heung-min, compulsory military service weighs on his path.

South Korea remains technically at war with nuclear-armed North Korea, and all able-bodied South Korean males must spend around 18 months in the forces before they turn 30.

The only exceptions are for Olympic medallists and Asian Games champions, along with the winners of some international classical music competitions.

But Kang’s skills could be of “great value” for the armed forces, said his coach Kim Jae-hong, who led the national team at the 2019 world championships.

South Korea’s 555,000-strong military is heavily outnumbered by North Korea’s 1.28 million troops.

But the South enjoys technological superiority including, according to the defence ministry, a fleet of around 800 drones for training and experimental combat purposes.

“The drone units’ monitoring mission is basically based on controlling a drone with a camera live feed, which is the same for drone racing,” the coach said.

“Kang and other racers can contribute greatly to its mission while maintaining their drone-control skills.”

MOST VIEWED

  • Phnom Penh curfew starts today

    A two-week curfew from 8pm to 5am starts today in Phnom Penh, a day after a sub-decree detailing administrative measures to contain Covid-19 was issued by Prime Minister Hun Sen. “Travelling in Phnom Penh is temporally banned between 8pm and 5am,” said Phnom Penh governor

  • Cambodia on the verge of national tragedy, WHO warns

    The World Health Organisation (WHO) in Cambodia warned that the country had reached another critical point amid a sudden, huge surge in community transmission cases and deaths. “We stand on the brink of a national tragedy because of Covid-19. Despite our best efforts, we are

  • Cambodia gears up for muted New Year festival

    The recent curfew and restrictions imposed in the capital and other Covid-19 hotspots were intended to break the chain of transmission, Ministry of Health spokeswoman Or Vandine said as municipal and provincial authorities issued new directives banning certain activities during the upcoming Khmer New Year

  • Vaccination open to foreigners in Cambodia

    The Ministry of Health on April 8 issued an announcement on Covid-19 vaccination for foreigners residing and working in Cambodia, directing the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training and local authorities to register them. Health minister Mam Bun Heng, who is also head of the inter-ministerial

  • Time to Rise by rapper, chapei legend is viral hit with ancient-modern mix

    Kong Nay is known internationally as the master of the chapei dang veng, a traditional Cambodian instrument resembling a long-necked lute or guitar with two nylon strings that he was already playing professionally by the age of 15. Nay is sometimes referred to as the Cambodian

  • Covid-19 vaccination now obligatory

    Prime Minister Hun Sen on April 11 issued a sub-decree making Covid-19 vaccination compulsory for individuals unless they have a medical certificate proving they have pre-existing health conditions that prevent them from doing so. «This applies to all members of the armed forces and civil servants