First Drone Soccer Tournament in the USA takes off this weekend in Colorado Springs. Held as part of the Rocky Mountain State Games, the event is a huge step forward for a highly educational team game that could surpass drone racing in popularity. Organizers hope it can inspire a new generation of robotics specialists as well.
Drone racing went from nothing ten years ago to being a regular on ESPN, with great prizes for the best riders, and it is expected to be ‘the next billion dollar sport. But viewers of drone racing come largely from the same background as racing fans, and for a non-enthusiast, the sport may not be easy to follow. Drone Soccer, by contrast, is audience-friendly and easy to follow in three action-packed three-minute sets.
“It’s basically Quidditch,” says Kyle Sanders, a former US Air Force fighter pilot and now vice president of USA Drone Soccer Others describe it as a space combat scene from Star Wars; a video gives an idea of how the game works here.
The game is played on a court that is ten feet by twenty-ten feet high. One drone in each team is designated as a forward, who scores by passing through the hoop on the other side. The rest of the team, three per side for beginners, or five per side at more advanced levels, play offense or defense. The drones are surrounded by ball-shaped mesh cages and bounce off each other, but damage occurs.
“It’s a total contact team sport,” says Sanders. “If you go in too hard, you’ll break the drone, and that means you’ll be out for the rest of that set.”
Soccer drones are designed to be easily repaired and any component can be replaced in less than a minute. Sanders says the team’s technicians race like Formula One mechanics so their drones are fit to fly on breaks.
As in tennis, the winner is the one who wins the most sets. Typically, each side scores two to five goals per set.
Winning requires teamwork. Talent is needed to pilot on the pitch, and technical skills are required to keep drones flying in top condition. But it is also a question of team organization: do you put your best player as a forward or in the last line of defense? – and discover the optimal tactics against each opposing team.
“You get blocking and all the other things that you get in a traditional team sport,” says Sanders. “Students quickly begin to develop their own strategies. It’s exciting to see how quickly they are learning. “
Sanders is keen to develop drone football for both participants and spectators. He says the barriers to entry are much lower than the more elite-focused drone races. He sees drone football developing in the next few years from a high school sport to a college level and then a professional league. But his real agenda is education. Each team builds and programs their own drones, and it’s the perfect way to draw kids into the world of drones and robotics, and Sanders is working with schools to develop a soccer curriculum with drones.
“It is a gateway for new students to learn skills and enter an industry that would not otherwise be accessible to them,” says Sanders. “Drone football makes drones accessible and affordable.”
The standard kit drone is produced by iFlight. The drone is eight inches in diameter and costs around $ 180, and the drone soccer fields are small enough to be installed in a school gym. This year is the first in history soccer summer camp with drones attracted enthusiastic attendance from a wide variety of backgrounds.
There is also a great soccer league with drones. In South Korea, where the game originated in 2016, they play with drones larger than forty centimeters on a larger court. At the university level and above, the largest size is likely to take over in the US, with teams designing and building their drones from scratch to squeeze all the advantages they can from the latest technology and make them as fast as they can, agile and resistant possible.
“The only limits are its weight and diameter,” says Sanders. “Within that you can build whatever you want.”
As with motorsports, expect to see teams pushing technical limits. Also as in motorsports, expect individual skill and tactics to play a role, and star players may emerge who one day earn as much as their drone racing counterparts.
South Korea pursues drone soccer in a big way; As with the US, it is expected to develop national expertise in drone technology. Jeonju City, which claims to be the home of the sport, is building a new International soccer center with $ 9.6 million drones and it plans to host the drone soccer world cup in 2025. If the United States is to compete internationally, teams are likely to emerge through schools and universities.
It is no coincidence that this weekend’s tournament is in Colorado Springs. It’s a hub for the aerospace and defense industry with the presence of Lockheed Martin, Grumman and others, in addition to being the location of the US Air Force Academy. That makes it an obvious starting point for a new high-tech drone-based sport that is also a STEM educational initiative.
Players in this weekend’s tournament will be among the first to gain experience in the new sport. Some of them might even end up as professional drone soccer players. But others could end up equally as roboticists, drone entrepreneurs, or in related fields that we can’t even imagine yet. And in the long run, that could mean a lot more to the US than victory in esports.