Game of Drones: Inventing a sport with flying robots

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By TYLER DASWICK
College Contributor Network

There were three things that my father and I watched together growing up. One, we obviously tuned into the vast majority of Suns, Diamondbacks and Cardinals games (though I was always a Packers guy). Two, we loved catching the occasional round of hijinks on Monday Night RAW. And three, if he let me stay up late enough, we'd catch an episode of Robot Wars: Extreme Warriors.

Robot Wars pitted two or three young robotics engineers against each other in a fight to the robot-death. Each engineer would bring in their own version of a killer bot, and battle it against other bots to determine a new champion every night. Some robots had giant arms with whirring saw blades. Other robots were thin and flat with giant pinchers like crabs. Still others boasted great battering rams and flamethrowers. The bots would zoom around the specially-designed arena (itself full of booby-traps) and try to wreck each other. That was the whole show. It was terrific.

In a modern 2014 context, Robot Wars comes across as a little dated, but that doesn't mean there isn't a great technology-rooted sport waiting to be invented right now. We have more technology tools now than ever, and the time is ripe for a new tech-focused competition. It is time we built a sport around drones.

Drones have had a unique controversy surrounding them ever since their initial surveillance operations, and yet, few pieces of tech have transitioned so smoothly from the realms of the military to that of the citizenry. If the United States continues on its current trajectory with drones, they might eventually become household items.

Amazon already wants to use them to deliver our mail, and who is to say that families won't have personal drones of their own soon after that? The potential for integration is huge -- probably larger than we understand right now -- and it is clear that these flying machines are primed to enter a bigger portion of the public sphere.

So with that precedent in mind, where do drones come in with sports? Primarily, we see modern drones being used more fully as tools in broadcasting -- their cameras can zip around the stadiums and capture things other cameras cannot -- but the usage of tech in the athletic world does not have to stop with journalism.

There can be an entire sport, an entire athletic culture, centered around drones. We can take the formula of Robot Wars and translate it into an arena where drones can be a part of the competition. We can create the 'Game of Drones.'

Your first thought in response to that might be, "Yeah! Cool! Let's go blow some stuff up!" and then your second thought might be, "Uh oh. A lot of stuff would blow up in the Game of Drones. That doesn't sound very safe for the future fans."

That is a great point, but for the sake of this idea, let's operate under the assumption that the inaugural season for the DCL (Drone Competition League) would take place sometime around 2025. Surely by then we will have some technology that would protect live spectators from the explosive action of the Drone War in front of them. Just humor this one for a second.

So how would a Game of Drones work? Let's put this into a spatial context. Like Robot Wars, the drones would all be placed in a specialized arena where they could battle each other to the point of destruction. Ideally we would have two teams of drones on opposite sides of a battlefield, and those teams would work to accomplish their own unique objectives. Could be a capture-the-flag situation, could be an eliminate-the-other-team situation -- you could take it a lot of ways.

But at its core, think of a drone war like a paintball battle. Two teams start on opposite sides and converge at the center of the battlefield as they try to accomplish certain military-esque objectives. First team to complete the objective wins. Pretty easy.


From a spectator standpoint, it is really hard to imagine something more thrilling and visceral than a live drone war. There would be wild flanking tactics, bait-and-switches, decoy drones, midair dogfights, reckless bum-rushes -- maybe even a type of drone that could self-destruct and take another drone down with it -- we would see everything.

The depth of strategy involved is currently unprecedented in the world of sports or entertainment. Each team would have their small drones designed for mobility and light harassment, and each team would have their heavy-hitter drones, armed to the teeth with rockets and cannons.

Similar to many modern video games, we would ideally see various classes of drones take to the battlefield. There would be ground troops. There would be bombers. There would be fighters. There would be drones to carry other drones. The potential expansiveness is truly mind-boggling.

Of course, few people would want to watch a bunch of machines fly around if there was not some good old-fashioned human drama behind the scenes, and this is where the Game of Drones really has a chance to emerge as a culture. Most modern sports do a draft, right? Well, the Drone Competition League would hold a draft too, but each team would draft engineers and pilots instead of athletes.

These guys and girls would come from all over -- everything from college grads to military veterans to people straight from the top of companies like Boeing -- and sports media would be all over their stories. Here are some people who are genuinely smart and hard-working, but also immensely ambitious and innovative.

Your city's team might draft the person who can outfit drones with a special kind of armor that the rest of the DCL doesn't have, or your team might draft the up-and-coming pilot who breaks out and is considered the best in the world.

There would be real personalities on the sidelines of every battle. We could see our tacticians barking out orders and rethinking strategy on-the-fly. We could see our pilots wrestle with the controls as their drone dodges an enemy missile. We could see our engineers hustle out onto the battlefield in their protective gear in order to make a mid-game repair or modification.

Indeed, the Game of Drones would be a sport for geeks and nerds, but its appeal would stretch from technology nuts to action junkies. Going to a battle would be like watching a war movie, but the stakes are more light-hearted, and the action is right in front of you.

Furthermore, we can think of this like a testing ground for technological advancement. Say one of the engineers develops a control scheme that enables instant-voice-recognition. Instead of using the pilots as mediators between the tactician and the drones, the team would gain a huge logistical edge -- the commander could issue sweeping orders directly.

These sorts of advancements would be prime for real-world application outside of the Game of Drones. We would see more risks being taken with innovation, and we would see more money going into direct improvement of modern machines.

Plus, if we want to talk about defusing information from the Game of Drones to the real-world, let's think about the in-sport implications. Instead of trading players like other leagues, the market in the DCL will be all about knowledge.

Teams will sell information, schematics and blueprints. Engineers and tacticians and pilots would go on the trading block. The stakes would be more tangible than other sports -- now, if our fleet of drones acquires this programmer, we know what kind of advances our team will receive.

The spirit of competition would encourage continual innovation and experimentation, and that spirit would also contribute to the overall sharing of ideas with the tech world as a whole. The Game of Drones could tangibly make our country more advanced.

The culture of drones is evolving, and it might be time for us to view these flying machines as something that has potential for recreational use. We can make a sport out of the drone technology we have today. We can create our own action movies and follow the human drama of the engineers.

We can watch as our city's squad of drones faces of against the cross-state rival. We can view the spectacle as a firepower-heavy team does battle against a team that specializes in armor and defensive tactics. Our culture would clamor to know the smartest strategy, the best technology, and we would always be looking out for the future of the sport.

The Game of Drones would present a new genre to the world of athletic entertainment. It might be a sport in the spirit of competition only, but we might be seeing something like this sooner rather than later. So for now, start scouting for pilots, and maybe befriend an engineer. These guys are going to be some of the leaders in entertainment before we know it.

Tyler Daswick is a junior at Northwestern University. He is a huge fan of the Green Bay Packers, Indiana Jones, and writing stories about cowboys and banditos. Follow him on Twitter: @AccordingtoDazz

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