The first Drone Soccer tournament in the U.S. takes off this weekend at Colorado Springs. The event, held as part of the Rocky Mountain State Games, is a big step forward for a high-teach team game which could overtake drone racing in popularity. Organizers hope it might also inspire a new generation of roboticists.
Drone racing went from nothing ten years ago to being a regular on ESPN, with big prizes for top racers, and it is tipped to be ‘the next billion-dollar sport.’ But drone racing spectators are largely drawn from the same set as race 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 across three action-packed three-minute sets.
“Basically, it’s Quidditch,” says Kyle Sanders, a former U.S. Air Force combat pilot and now V.P. of U.S. Drone Soccer. Maybe that should be Quidditch for tech wizards; others describe as as looking like 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 ten feet by twenty and ten feet high. One drone in each team is designated the striker, which scores by passing through the other side’s hoop. The rest of the team –three-a-side for beginners, or five-a-side at more advanced levels – play attack or defense. The drones are surrounded by ball-like mesh cages and bounce off each other, but damage happens.
“It’s a full-contact team sport,” says Sanders. “If you go in too hard you’ll break the drone, and that means you’re 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 team technicians race like Formula One mechanics to get their drones airworthy in the breaks.
As in tennis, the victor is whoever wins the most sets. Typically each sides scores two to five goals per set.
Winning takes teamwork. Piloting talent is needed on the court, and it takes technical skills to keep the drones flying in top condition. But it is also a matter of team organization – do you put your best player as striker, or in the last line of defense? – and figuring out the optimal tactics against each opposing team.
“You get blocking, and all the other things you get in a traditional team sport,” says Sanders. “Students quickly start developing their own strategies. It’s exciting to see how quickly they’re learning.”
Sanders is keen to build up drone soccer both for participants and as a spectator sport. He says that the barriers for entry are much lower than the more elite-focused drone racing. He sees drone soccer developing over the next few years from a High School sport to university level and then a professional league. But his real agenda is education. Each team builds and programs its own drones, and it is the perfect way of drawing kids into the world of drones and robotics, ands Sanders works with schools to develop a drone soccer curriculum.
“It’s an on-ramp for new students to learn skills and get into an industry that would not otherwise be accessible to them,” says Sanders. “Drone soccer make drones accessible and affordable.”
The standard kit drone is produced by iFlight. The drone is twenty centimeters in diameter and costs about $180, and drone soccer courts are small enough to set up in a school gym. This years’ first ever drone soccer summer camp drew an enthusiastic attendance from a wide variety of backgrounds.
There is a big drone soccer league as well. In South Korea, where the game originated in 2016, they play with larger forty-centimeter drones on a bigger court. At University level and up the larger size is likely to take over in the U.S , with teams designing and building their drones from scratch to squeeze all the advantage they can out of the latest technology and make them as fast, agile and tough as possible.
“The only limits are your weight and diameter,” says Sanders. “Within that you can build what you like.”
As with motorsports, expect to see teams pushing technical boundaries. Also as with motorsports, expect individual skill and tactics to play a part, and star players may emerge who may one day earn as much as their drone racing counterparts.
South Korea is pursuing drone soccer in a big way; as with the U.S., it is expected to build national expertise in drone technology. Jeonju City, which claims to be the home of the sport, is building a new $9.6m international drone soccer center and plans to host the drone soccer world cup in 2025. If America is going to compete at an international level, teams are likely to come up through schools and universities.
It is no coincidence that this weekend’s tournament is at Colorado Springs. It is a hub for the aerospace and defense industry with a presence from Lockheed Martin, Grumman and others, as well as being the location of the U.S. Air Force Academy. That makes it an obvious starting point for a new high-tech drone-based sport which is also a STEM educational initiative.
The players at 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 might equally end up as roboticists, drone entrepreneurs, or in related fields we can’t even imagine yet. And in the long run that could mean far more to the U.S. than e-sporting victory.