Drones with exoskeletons face off in soccer challenge

How do you train the next generation of pilots and aviation pros? Full contact drone sports seems like a good start.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

Much to the chagrin of aspiring pilots, drones will certainly play a leading role in many forms of aviation in the not-too-distant future. So how do you build a talent pipeline of kids who know how to fly and repair drones?

Kyle Sanders, US Drone Soccer vice president and former US Air Force combat pilot is seeking to do just that by educating students in robotics, coding, and aerospace. Drone Soccer, which according to a spokesperson looks a lot like Quidditch from the Harry Potter books, was introduced in South Korea in 2016 and has moved to the US as an educational and fun sport. 

So how do you play?

"Drone Soccer is an educational sport where students must first learn how to build, program, fly, and repair high-performance drones," Sanders tells me. "The competition itself is an exciting full-contact sport, these drones have a protective exoskeleton and are designed for collisions. Equal teams of 3v3 up to 5v5 play inside a netted arena and it is an accessible game for new players, with growth opportunities through college programs and even the World Cup. Our first test events took place in Colorado at the Space Foundation in Colorado Springs and Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum."

The first Drone Soccer tournament in North America will take place in Colorado Springs, CO this July. As a veteran, Kyle has a background in aerospace education and is working with local institutions to create a U.S. Drone Soccer curriculum that provides equipment, training, and lesson plans to the schools adopting the sport.

"NASA just landed the first flying drone on another planet with the Mars Ingenuity helicopter," says Sanders. "Students can see that drones are the future, with new and unexpected applications in every industry. It's also a way to earn money and launch a career at a young age."

But, cautions Sanders, the path to a future in aviation has never been so obscure.

"There is a huge talent gap where students are intimidated away from science and technical career fields. Speaking as a former pilot, there are hundreds of aerospace careers besides just operating the controls. Our program introduces them to all of the fast-growing opportunities and skills they could pursue such as 3D modeling, small-scale manufacturing, computer programming, robotics, and flight operations. Wings Over the Rockies has training camps all summer where students are really diving into these topics and opening doors to future careers."

Colorado Springs' Coronado and Mitchell High Schools will serve as test pilots in Colorado Springs, potentially ushering in a new generation of top guns. To make sure this sport is available to all students, a combination of federal and state funding is used.

"Colorado is the site of our first test league, and we've worked closely with educators and administrators in Colorado Springs and Denver," Sanders explains. "Colorado Springs District 11 enrolled the first two high school programs with Coronado High School taking second place at our first student tournament. School districts are eager for a comprehensive drone program that meets their classroom and career preparedness needs. They want to prepare students for this exciting new field. Enrollment is open for the upcoming school year, and we're adding new schools every week."

Colorado Springs already plays an important role in U.S. aviation as home to the U.S. Air Force Academy, five military installations, and over 250+ aerospace and defense companies in the region.

"Aerospace and defense companies are eager to work with local economic development groups like the Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC and city and state governments to attract tech talent and train the next generation of leaders in this space. Drone Soccer is a double win to keep kids learning in the summer, or after school, and to encourage these students to learn more about aerospace, coding, and engineering fields."

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