The game, in play, in Jeonju, South Korea. Photo: Ophelie Surcouf/Asia Times
The game, in play, in Jeonju, South Korea. Photo: Ophelie Surcouf/Asia Times

First, there’s the sound of a giant beehive. Then comes the sensation of hundreds of bees rushing towards your face as wind blasts your hair.

But it is not an insect – it’s a big ball. In fact, it’s 10 big balls. Ten big, geometrical balls flying three meters high in an arena and colliding with each other in a futuristic, clashing flash of LED lights.

Visually, it’s a striking contrast between darkness and the blue, green, yellow, purple and red lights. Audibly, there’s occasional music – blaring through speakers – but more dominant is the buzz of the rotors.

The aim is simple: score points by sending a drone through the opposing team goal – a hoop hanging three meters high in the 13-meter long, 7-meter wide pitch. Among the five drones in play in each team, only one can go through: the “striker” drone, identified by two yellow papers attached to it.

Gooooaaal! When a striker drone enters the hoop, a goal is scored. Photo: Ophelie Surcouf/Asia Times

The four other drones can do whatever they please – a conventional game plan is to have a goalkeeper, a defender, a midfield player and an assistant attacking with the striker. Things move fast: One round lasts three minutes and there are three rounds to a game. On the sidelines, anxious team members sit ready next to toolboxes spread out on benches.

Welcome to drone soccer, a wannabe game of the future that requires piloting, mechanical and strategic skills, team spirit – and plenty of high-tech carbon fiber.

“Usually, technological games are games you play alone,” said Kwang Jeong-ho an elementary school teacher attending the 12th Drone Soccer Competition in an adjunct building to the World Cup Stadium in Jeonju on Saturday. “With drone soccer, you build a community, you can play together and interact. We all shout at each other,” he adds while adjusting his team cap. “There’s a big atmosphere.”

In the heat of the action. Photo: Ophelie Surcouf/Asia Times

Boom, crash, flash ‘n fiber

The game was born two years ago in 2016 in Jeonju – a sleepy rural city in southern South Korea best known for traditional architecture and cuisine, but also home to a thriving carbon fiber sector. It sprang from the mind of Lee Beom-su, an ex-soldier and fireman who then turned to research at CAMTIC Advanced Mechatronics Technologies Institute for Commercialization, a local tech research center.

“I wanted to make a game that would connect people,” he explained. “It wasn’t complicated at all. We were just trying to make something fun to play and to watch. Nobody imagined that drones could bump into each other, because they are high technology, fragile and expensive.”

These drones are certainly durable: They crash into one another, bounce on the ground and collide, sometimes repeatedly, with the goal hoop and the carbon fiber netting surrounding the arena.

The first step of the development was to find a way to protect the drones.

“There are many ways to do so, it’s just that no one ever thought to apply them to drones”, Lee said. The CAMTIC lab developed, with support from industry and government, a protective shell shaped like a ball.

Team ready to play. Photo: Ophelie Surcouf/Asia Times

It’s made mainly out of carbon fiber – a core local industry – and a touch of plastic. “Plastic only would be too easy to break,” said Lee Ki-seob, the team leader of Drone Soccer Technology Development at the Jeonju Carbon Industry Division, adding that metal would be too heavy to fly.

No drone ball will last long in the arena if it can’t take a battering. The components – rotors, motors, sensors lights – are held together with thin cables; and shock can disconnect or displace any one of them. Some drone ball’s LED lights turn off after one bump and it’s nearly impossible for a team to keep all its players up and running for the whole game.

In addition to carbon fiber, various components – LED lights, sensors, motors, maneuvering mechanisms – are supplied by a range of companies, all Korean.

All this has a price. A drone football set goes for US$500 and around 200 stores carry them. “It’s expensive because every [part of the skeleton] of the ball has to be exactly the same so the game can be fair – right down to the number of carbon molecules,” said Lee Beom-su. Verification is done manually.

The rule is that if your drone is down, you have to notify the control center by crossing your arms and placing your remote control on the ground to show you’re out. In between games, all players and their supporters work frenziedly like Formula 1 pit crews to fix their drones for the next round, while at the same time discussing tactics.

The ball also has to be very light so it doesn’t obstruct aerodynamics or speed of flight: No drone can be heavier than 1,100 grams. That’s Kwang Jeong-ho’s favorite rule: “You can tune your drone whichever way you want as long as it’s under the limit,” he said. “You just have to be creative!”

Carbon fiber Quidditch for all?

Drone soccer has sometimes been compared to Harry Potter’s game Quidditch and there is something it in: flying balls go through circles to score points. But that never was an inspiration to the CAMTIC team.

The very first version was played like soccer – with an empty shell acting as the ball. The teams had to bounce it into the opposite team’s circle. But because the ball was so slow compared to the motorized drones, the game would always end up looking like 10 balls surrounding one – a fun challenge for the players but a terrible show for the audience. So the extra ball was ruled out and the game became what it is today.

Jeonju has been holding regular events for two years. For Saturday’s event, the 12th, six teams competed, watched by about 100 spectators. But this tourney was not the elite level, according to Jeong In-young: “This is the competition of losers! They all lost last time and came below 3rd place!”

Braving the cold in a thick coat, she had come to support her family and son Ryan Kim, 12, who helps a disabled team handle the drone balls.

The disabled team are assisted by young volunteers. Photo: Ophelie Surcouf/Asia Times

One member of the disabled team is Lee Myung-cheol. The one-legged 79-year-old is passionate about drone soccer: “I saw it the first time one year ago at an inaugural ceremony and I thought: ‘Oh, this is great! This could be for disabled people since you only need a controller to play’.” He won funding from the government and the Jeonju Drone Association.

The game is only two years old, but it’s expanding rapidly. Korea counts more than 30,000 players, all amateurs, according to the Drone Association: 220 adult teams and 600 child teams. China, Japan, Malaysia and the UK have already joined the ranks, and Team USA is forming.

But Jeonju is thinking big: City Hall wants to hold a “World Cup” in 2025.

That sparks hope for 17-year-old Chwae Min-Sung. The high-schooler just passed the exam to get his Drone Soccer National Certificate two months ago and is working his way toward fixing the major technical problems his drone could encounter in competitions.

“It’s not possible yet,” he says. “But maybe one day I’ll be able to become a professional drone soccer player.”

Team members work furiously to fix a downed drone. Photo: Ophelie Surcouf/Asia Times