A new program that melds sports with engineering in Philadelphia could open a path for young people to careers they didn’t think possible.
It’s called drone soccer, and it takes esports to a whole new level: one with physical contact.
Philadelphia entrepreneur and drone instructor Shari Williams is launching the Philadelphia Drone Soccer League to provide students in grades 6-12 the opportunity to learn aviation skills that could steer them toward becoming pilots.
What exactly is drone soccer? Williams described it as a STEM program that “gamifies aerospace education” through competition.
It’s hands on, she said, and lets students pilot drones to score goals. Players split into teams of equal size, flying RC quadcopter drones and ramming them into one another in midair. Each drone is encased in a protective cage, usually lit up with team colors.
Gameplay is kind of like quidditch meets bumper cars.
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A score happens when a team’s “striker” (a designated player) gets through the other team’s circular goal post, erected at opposite ends of a 2,000-sq.-ft. playing field. How do you keep the striker out? Bang into them.
Williams, an FAA-licensed drone pilot who goes by “Goddess of Drones,” said she was memorized when an adult student of hers introduced her to the game this spring. She sees the emerging sport’s best asset — besides its connection to new-fangled tech — as how it can help young people become leaders.
“We have a lot of robotic programs,” she said. “We have them in Philadelphia, but not enough of them — and we don’t have them in communities of need.”
Williams admitted she still has her work cut out for her when it comes to educating students about the sport and the league, which soft-launched on Sept. 14 with less than a dozen students from Philly-area schools. She’s focused on attracting more, and there’s an official launch party from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday at the West Philadelphia YMCA.
Williams hopes the sport will inspire its soon-to-be competitors to explore careers in aviation, technology, and communications. Only 4% of U.S. pilots are African American, according to 2021 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. People of color are also underrepresented in tech jobs, with a lack of cultural competency in the industry contributing to an exodus of employees.
Adults are also welcome to participate in matches, Williams said. The league’s demo games will take place at Philly YMCAs and rec centers starting in November, and the goal is to eventually compete at a regional and national level. Alabama, Ohio and Delaware among the states with drone soccer teams, with Williams already staking claim to a future rivalry.
“I cannot wait to get to New York,” she said. “They’ve been kind of calling me out because New York was one of the very first groups to be on the map. So they’re like, ‘When you come, we’ll be there.’”
Before taking her Philly teams on the roads, Williams needed to obtain certification from the World Air Sports Federation (FAI). Now Philly’s league is the first competitive, student-centered drone soccer program to be recognized by the FAI.
Kyle Sanders, vice president for the development of U.S Drone Soccer at FAI, told Billy Penn he was immediately sold on Williams’ qualifications to run the fledgling league after learning about her through Ashley Cooper, the founder and president of drone education and training institution Droneversity, this spring.
“[Shari] shares our passion for creating opportunities for young people to engage in aerospace careers, which is a big part of our mission,” Sanders said. “Not a lot of people have that kind of courage to pursue something that’s brand new. But we’ve been lucky to find people like that around the country, and Shari’s one of them.”
Though the league is still in its beginning stages, Williams is already thinking about what success looks like. Right now it’s about getting her students time on the regional circuit and developing awareness of the sport in more than just some Philly schools.
“My goal is to be able to introduce this to not only our community, right here where I live, but other communities that look very similar to my community,” Williams said.
“It will be successful when everyone in Philadelphia and beyond says, ‘Absolutely! I know about Philadelphia Drone Soccer. A matter of fact, I play on a team.’”