In Incheon, South Korea, flying orbs whistle, buzz and clash in the air in an effort to glide through hoops for points. If you’ve ever seen Harry Potter, it’s a lot like a remote-controlled, electric version of Quidditch.
The increasingly popular sport is drone soccer. Students representing Westminster High School traveled for an international battle of aerospace skill in the FIDA World Drone Soccer Championships, which hosted more than a dozen international teams between May 17-20.
Four students from WHS paired up with four Sky-Blazers from Cherry Creek — who finished second nationally in 2023. They make up the U.S. National Team. The hybrid team of Coloradans finished third in Incheon in what is essentially the World Cup of drone soccer.
Recently, the team hosted South Korean players for a friendly competition at the Colorado Convention Center. But when the championships kicked off in South Korea, the friendliness faded and things got real.
“As you’re preparing for the matches, it’s kind of friendly because everyone is trying to help each other out, especially if you don’t have the right supplies at the right time,” said Helen Tran, a WHS junior and keeper for the U.S. National Team. “But once you’re on that floor, and about to face them, it’s really competitive and it’s like ‘We’re on opposite sides right now. You’re my enemy.’”
Drone soccer is the only educational robotics competition that is also an internationally sanctioned team sport by the World Air Sports Federation.
Here’s how it works: two teams of five players compete against one another at the same time. Each team has a keeper, a striker, and three defenders. The idea is to protect your own goal and fly the striker into the other team’s hoop to score.
But students don’t just fly the drones. They must build, repair, and maintain them. There are three three-minute sets, two out of three seals a victory. Between sets, there is a three-to-five-minute period for modifying and repairing any potential damage.
“They’re kind of like a Formula 1 team working really well together,” Kyle Sanders, vice president of development for U.S. Drone Soccer, said. “It’s really the communication and teamwork that you see in professional aviation, working on airplanes or preparing for operations.”
The sport is just now gaining traction outside of South Korea, Sanders said, where it’s been popular since 2015. But slowly, other countries are coming along. The U.S. National Team is only in its first competitive year on the international stage, and WHS has been growing its program for three years.
“The goal is to build aerospace programs and career pathways using this fun sport as an introduction program,” Sanders said.
Lottie Wilson, the career and technical education advisor at WHS, called it the gamification of aerospace education.
“They’re building them. They’re programming them. They’re engineering them. They’re doing it all,” Wilson said. “It’s definitely getting kids hooked into aerospace education through gamification.”
It’s been a surreal experience for the students, who can polish their skills and meet new people in a fun, brand new environment that’s loved drone soccer for years.
“I hope I get to keep doing this. It’s really fun,” said senior Luis Lechuga, who is attending Metropolitan State University in the fall to study mechanical engineering. “I’m interested in doing aerospace engineering [also]. I never expected to go to South Korea, I just wanted to get involved in flying drones.”
Lechuga and the other seniors in Incheon opted to miss their own graduation to make the trip. Being able to share this experience with like-minded students from all over the world has opened new ways of thinking about aviation and aerospace science, Tran said, and they’ve picked up some tricks from the Korean players along the way.
“I’m able to learn how to communicate, especially with a language barrier. We’re still able to communicate and share ideas with each other, and basically improve together,” Tran said. “It’s a really good and beneficial way to network. I’ve been able to befriend them through this shared passion, and so it’s just really cool.”
Since the program’s inception at WHS, interest has been through the roof, Robbie Ferguson said. Ferguson is the aerospace teacher and drone soccer coach at WHS.
“My students ask to come to practice. They ask for extra practices all the time,” Ferguson said. “They really enjoy being a part of the team and everything that comes with it.”
Much of the program is graduating this year, Ferguson said, but fortunately the middle school interest is already significant, and continues to grow. Orchard Park Academy in Westminster is in its first year of its drone soccer program.
The Pumas didn’t waste any time. Orchard Park finished first among middle school programs in nationals this past season, and finished fourth overall, beating even the WHS team. Recently, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis visited Orchard Park for a visit and lesson in aerospace acrobatics.
The future of drone soccer is bright, particularly along the Front Range. Experienced middle school students will be ready to step in and contribute right away at the high school level. The natural interest in the sport sparks a furious work ethic, and the results show it.
“I’m super proud of them. They work really hard. They work really well together, so that’s amazing. They’ve just come a long way in the last couple weeks,” Ferguson said. “The interest level is just huge. Once you get them in, they’re hooked.”