A veteran Air Force combat pilot is working to make drones and robotics accessible to students through the emerging sport of drone soccer.

The sport takes the typical after-school robotics club to the next level and may look slightly familiar to Harry Potter’s Quidditch. Thanks to Maj. Kyle Sanders, it is making headway in the western US.

Sanders got involved with the up-and-coming robotic sport after he separated from the Air Force. Sanders flew the C-130 in Iraq and Afghanistan after graduating from the Air Force Academy. He also is a trained pilot and previously instructed at the Air Force Academy. In all of his assignments, he worked in science outreach programs and wanted to continue this work. Drone soccer provided a unique opportunity to do so and he now serves as the vice president of U.S. Drone Soccer, which helps make drone soccer accessible to schools.

How drone soccer works

“It’s the first drone program I’ve seen that is based in teamwork,” Sanders told Military Times, explaining the sport’s appeal. “It’s spectator-friendly and it can be an on-ramp for students into science and technology.”

Drone soccer involves two teams made up of three to five people each. The two teams face off in a 10′ x 20′ netted airfield, with each team member navigating their own drone.

One player per team navigates the specially-marked “Striker” drone to score through the other teams goal. The other players work to block either the Striker or opposing drones with full-contact collisions. The drones have a plastic exoskeleton that make them able to sustain hits from opponents.

The game has a triad of three minute periods and team members must be able to repair their drones on the fly (literally) to continue the game. While playing, students learn real-world skills that translate into different career fields including aviation and aerospace, according to Sanders.

Making play possible for all

Originally built for the military, drones have now become common in the commercial and educational field. However, they still are quite expensive, with prices ranging anywhere from under $100 for a beginner drone to over $1000 for a professional-grade drone.

The cost of sturdy racing drones often proves to be a barrier to students and schools that do not have the resources to build up their robotics clubs. A major part of drone soccer is its affordability, according to Sanders.

“We’re not repurposing toy drones,” Sanders said, explaining how some other programs handle the high cost. He said that these drones are high-performance racing drones that are custom-built and stripped down the essentials.

Additionally, drone soccer balls total out at $179 for an individual ball. Adding in the necessary support equipment brings the total to around $450. This makes them more accessible, less expensive and perfect for students to get their feet wet in the STEM field.

Beyond cost, the sport also makes it possible for everyone to take a shot at the STEM field. It caters to all ages and athletic abilities, including those with disabilities.

North America’s first tournament

Americans no longer have to sit on the sidelines as they wait for the South Korea-born sport to come to the United States.

July 31 to Aug. 1, the first drone soccer tournament is coming to North America. Students will now get their turn to score at the Rocky Mountain State Games in Colorado Springs, Colo. The drone soccer events will take place at Coronado High School, the home of the first academic drone soccer program in North America.

Service members, spouses and their dependents can also get in on the fun at the Rocky Mountain State Games with a special discount. Through its Military Support Program, eligible entrants can get a 50% discount off the normal registration fees for the drone soccer tournament (as well as other select sports).

U.S. Drone Soccer has partnered with Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum to put on the tournament, as well as summer camps and training programs this summer leading up to the games.

While there isn’t an exact count yet of how many schools and students will be in attendance, Sanders said Colorado has a large drone racing community. He is expecting both students and adults to join together for the fun of the tournament.

Observation Post is the Military Times one-stop shop for all things off-duty. Stories may reflect author observations.
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