Near a rice field in South Korea, 18-year-old Kang Chang Hyun is training tirelessly to defend his world title, perhaps for the last time. Because in her specialty – drone racing – people often retire even before they perform their military service.
“FPV racing,” or racing in “first person perspective” (or “experimenting with immersion”), is an art that requires qualities that unfortunately do not improve over the years.
Initially, Kang and his three companions launched their drones into the distinctive roar of these lightning-fast quadcopters that crossed obstacles placed on the Hwaseong Circuit south of Seoul.
The four pilots are well anchored in their seats, and do not move, except for the imperceptible pressure of their fingers on the control levers. In their bubble, they appear to be hypnotized by driving the flying car, which they drive as if “on board”, thanks to a virtual reality headset.
After three laps of the circuit – or one minute later – the race is over and it is already time to debrief in a nearby tent, with pilots, coaches, technicians – and even parents – looking at flight data.
As in Formula 1, drone racing not only involves impressive driving skills but, behind it, also includes first-class engineering.
– ‘With complete admiration’ –
Racing machines are manufactured and customized by the riders and their team, and can reach 170 km / h. Often the races are so close that gaps are measured in thousandths of a second.
Performance includes guaranteed reflexes, exceptional visual acuity, and long hours of training.
Kang is only 18 years old, but he feels he’s already on a downhill against the younger generation of competitors – some of whom are still in elementary school – who will soon be steeper than him.
“These traits are most developed in early and middle teens,” says the pimple-faced pilot.
Faced with an “inevitable” regression in his reactions, Kang does not rule out having to put things on hold before he turns 20.
“It will be difficult to compete with them when I grow up,” he says. “I may not continue beyond this year.”
He’s already in the eyes of 12-year-old Jeong Ryeowon.
“The first time I met Kang Chang Hyun, I was completely in awe,” she said after a competition in Hadong County (south). “It was almost like a dream.”
– ‘Cold is essential’ –
Today, she truly hopes to beat him: “He is my role model, so I hope to face him in the World Championships, and win.”
It’s only three years since Kang flew his first drone when he became world champion in China in 2019.
He said, “Cold is necessary because victory can be based on a decision taken in a fraction of a second.”
“The main thing is to remain calm, even if there is someone in front of you, to minimize mistakes.”
Kang High School in Rural Hongseong County has sought to capitalize on its students’ success by landing in a specialized drone institution that offers flying lessons – with Kang as its ambassador.
But the dreaded pandemic unfortunately prevented him from defending his title when he was at its best because the International Aviation Federation, an institution founded in Lausanne that oversees air sports, was forced to cancel the World Championships in 2020.
“I was able to do a good job last year,” he regrets.
– Useful for national defense –
Like all South Koreans, Kang will have to perform military service for about 18 months before he turns 30, and his country is still technically at war with Pyongyang.
His coach Kim Jae-hong wants to believe that Kang’s skills will be very helpful in national defense.
With 555,000 soldiers, the southern army is outnumbered by the northern army, which has a strength of 1.28 million.
But its technological edge is overwhelming, including in the field of drones. The South Korean Ministry of Defense claims to have a fleet of 800 machines.
“The surveillance missions involve controlling a drone using a direct video link, which is the same as racing drones,” says the trainer.
“Kang and the other pilots can provide great service while preserving their skills.”