Drone Soccer Movement is Spreading Worldwide

Learning about drones could be one way to pique younger students’ interest in STEM topics, educators insist.  In fact, a growing number of high schools are incorporating drone classes into their standard curricula for just this reason.  But how to get kids interested in drones in the first place?  Through drone “soccer,” some say.

The drone soccer movement started six years ago in South Korea and has since mushroomed into national leagues and competitions across two dozen countries on three continents.  Last year featured the first annual drone soccer “world cup,” a sign of just how fast the sports movement is growing. The second world cup is scheduled for this week in Las Vegas, Nevada.  There’s even a movement to build a drone soccer stadium near Seoul at a cost of $25 million.  In fact, construction of the stadium has already begun.

How is drone soccer played?  With drones, of course – five to a team, with a striker, a midfielder and three defenders, each controlled by a remote pilot standing on the sidelines.  The light-weight quadcopters fly in circular shells made of hard plastic that protects them as they whizz back and forth above a mock soccer “field” about 100 feet in length.  Each team tries to “score” by sending its lead drone through a hanging tire-like structure 60 centimeters wide – the “goal.”  The action is fast and furious, with lots of harmless collisions at speeds up to 90 miles per hour.

Tim Ingraham, a representative of the Federation of International DroneSoccer Associations, or FIDA, the sport’s official governing body, says drone soccer  is taking off rapidly at the professional level but it’s primarily aimed at reaching youngsters, some of them in preschool.  At this week’s international competition, FIDA exhibited a scaled down version of drone soccer balls suitable for kids still mastering the basics of hand-eye coordination.  The tiny drones fly at speeds up to 30 miles per hour but include extra safeguards to minimize possible injuries to their pilots, some of them as young as four.

Drone soccer officials like Ingraham are anxious to provide a fresh sports outlet for young kids that might also get them interested in drones and aviation as a career path.  “Right now, the aviation industry faces critical shortages in aircraft production, mechanics, engineers and pilots,” notes the trailer for Drone Soccer, FIDA’s U.S. affiliate. “We want to make high-paying aerospace careers accessible to all students.”

Currently, Drone Soccer works with local high schools to set up their own drone soccer programs, which includes all of the materials needed to construct a drone soccer field and its netted enclosure, plus the drones and their remote piloting controllers and software.  The movement is still in its infancy but participating schools in states like Colorado and California report a high level of enthusiasm from their students.

“I think this sport is going to take off very quickly, “says Alden Henry, a senior at Cherry Creek High School in Greenwood Village, Colorado, a small town of 15,000.  “We’re up here doing all these events and showcases, and we’re going to have nationals in May.  And I think the whole thing is just going to skyrocket.”

A high school in Long Beach, California is the first to institute a drone soccer program in the state, though several middle schools established drone soccer camps last summer.  Albert Gallo, an aerospace engineering teacher at the high school, said he quickly saw the sport’s potential for stimulating student interest in science and engineering topics.

“I thought it was the most amazing thing for kids to do because it involves a lot of STEM skills and would teach them about aeronautics and would give them lots of different avenues to get into the field,” Gallo says.  The school is currently preparing for a regional competition in Palm Springs and then hopefully will make it to the national competition in New York.

Drone soccer may also offer a special path to diversity.  “Everybody doesn’t play basketball and everybody’s not good at sports, but they’re gamers,” says Theo Nix, who coaches the Delaware Drone Soccer League at a YMCA in Wilmington.  He notes that the vast majority of participants in the new league are inner-city youth, mostly from disadvantaged minority backgrounds. The teams, which are gender-mixed, include a high proportion of young girls who might not have the same access to regular sports teams.

Ashlee Cooper, who helps coach the teams but also serves as an on-field referee during competitions, notes: “None of [the girls] could fly when we started, but some had the natural ability,especially, if they were gamers. I’m really excited to see how they continue to grow together,” she adds.

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