The age of drone surveillance in sports is born.
Drones are a given in modern international conflicts. Be it the US waging shadow wars against Yemeni insurgents, Israel spying on Iranian nuclear plants, or North Korea using pathetic hobby drones to surveil its Southern neighbour, unmanned aerial vehicles of all shapes and sizes have become staples of modern warfare. Only now, along with other new emerging technologies, drones have found their way to the battlefields of soccer.
French national team coach Didier Deschamps is reportedly calling for an investigation into a quadcoptor drone that was spotted spying over his team’s closed training session on Tuesday.
Online news service Football Italia says Deschamps is worried one of France's opponents in the World Cup deployed the quadcoptor. He even went so far to say that it was possibly aggressive French media, trying to gather valuable intel on the team's tactics, that spun up the small-fry spy drone. Closed practises give the opportunity for soccer managers to view the fitness of key players and review gametime tactics, which goes a long way in deciding your team selection and formation. If rival managers acquired that information, it would represent a tactical advantage.
But French media outlet BFMTV is reporting the drone was not Honduran. (Honduras is France’s first opponent on Sunday in a Group E that also includes Switzerland and Ecuador.) The culprit? A hobbyist and fan, flying his unlicensed drone in Brazilian airspace, according to BFMTV. Local police are investigating and are promising a quick resolution.
Apparently it didn’t take long for French players and media to figure out there was drone in the sky hovering over the pitch. Even if the drone had been loitering for the entirety of the practise, it’s unlikely it would’ve gone undetected for long. Not to mention, before the closed training session France had several open practises with the opportunity to spy on weaknesses and player fitness.
What the incident speaks more to is not only the easy availability of quadcoptors for consumers, but the many emerging technologies influencing this year’s World Cup. Think about it: Four years ago, in South Africa, the idea of a drone spying on practises seemed about as likely as an Italy repeat.
But besides drones, other technological innovations are creeping into the World Cup in Brazil. And I’m not just talking about Sony streaming games in 4K.
The controversial inclusion of futuristic goal lines already drastically changes the perception of the sport. FIFA is paying German start-up GoalControl nearly $3.5 million to operate new goal line technology that will eliminate well-documented referee errors. Using a super-image processing camera, the motion of the ball is triangulated with sensors on the goal line, providing referees with instant goal decisions. Miscalled goals have been an issue for years, just check this example from last World Cup when Frank Lampard clearly scored a goal that was disallowed. Germany ended up winning the game. English fans could not shut up about it.
Player preparation seems to be a key theme to other innovations. The English Football Association outfitted all of its players with iPads with a scouting app for rival teams; personal data and video footage of opponents in the group stage, along with position specific reports for players like Wayne Rooney, are right there for study. Meanwhile, their traditional German rivals came up with new software that algorithmically calculates game data to analyze the play of players. Results give coaches a better idea of what to improve on and who played best.
Even traditional media surrounding the World Cup is noticeably changing. Nike Soccer is known for some of the most iconic pre-tournament advertisements. From Paolo Maldini and Eric Cantona battling Demons in the Coliseum, to the Scorpion Match and the catchy Elvis remix, Nike tends to come up with the memorable campaigns fans and boot buyers enjoy most.
But this year’s "The Last Game" was an entirely new, full-on CGI take of famous players playing in an epic grudge match against clones. The opening has a Prometheus feel to it, with the same creepy English villain championing human evolution. In this iteration, the clones lose, but you can’t help but think Nike is tacitly aware of the discussions surrounding future replacements for players. And the idea is more interesting when you consider there’s an entire shadow World Cup for robots that plans on producing a robo-team capable of beating human players by the mid-21st century.
And then of course, the kick-off will feature a young paraplegic person rising from their wheelchair, in what’s been described as an “Iron Man bodysuit," to take the first kick of the World Cup with a robotic leg completely controlled with their mind. The identity of the kicker has been kept a secret, but it’s an interesting pick for a massive sporting event to showcase the rise of robotics, including drones.
Either way, I’m all for it. Who knows? Maybe one day drones spying on teams and players who used to be paralyzed playing striker for Brazil won’t be such a big deal.