How football clubs are using drones to coach future stars

A strange object hovers above Charlton Athletic’s training ground, monitoring the movement of all the men on the ground. To the untrained eye, it looks like a UFO has descended on south-east London, ready to swoop on the unsuspecting footballers below.

Of course, it’s not the Star Trek Enterprise or some other form of space-bound aircraft. The machine in question is the Phantom Three drone – the latest piece of technology available to coaches in their mission to assess the performance of the footballers under their watch.

Controlling it is David Powderly, coach of Charlton Athletic’s under-14 side. He’s one of just a handful of men in world football who holds a Uefa approved drone pilot’s license. But what exactly is a football coach doing controlling a small aircraft?  

“2017 will be a big year for drones in football,” he tells FFT. “Filming from a gantry or by the side of the pitch is limiting, by using a drone you can film your players from a bird’s eye view and hover over specific players and areas on the pitch.”

Obtaining a license is no easy feat. Powderly paid £1000 to undergo a course comprised of theory and practical elements alongside property developers, surveyors and roofers. “The course leader was surprised when I mentioned it could be useful for football – sport is only just tapping into this technology,” he adds.

After spending a further £1200 to purchase a drone himself, he then had to convince Charlton of the technology’s merits. “They were sceptical, but I filmed a few sessions, looking at building out from the back and showing the forwards the positions they needed to take up to press the back four effectively. It was then that they realised its uses.”

Importantly, it’s also impressed the club’s players. Powderly has used clips of the first team to educate younger age groups about Charlton's tactical philosophy, so they’re all aware of their positional requirements if and when they turn professional. 

“After the age of 14, the tactical side of the game becomes very important,” he continues. A lot of the players ask for individual clips so they can see where they are on the pitch at certain points in the games. 

“Football is subjective a lot of the time, but with a drone you’re able give accurate feedback. If you’re a centre-forward and need to stop a centre-back from switching play, you can show the player and say ‘this is the type of run you can make.' I think it accelerates learning more than a fixed camera.”

As part of the Elite Player Performance Plan [EPPP], clubs are required to record every training session and post individual clips of every player to an online database. “The system means youngsters can go home and study the footage away from the club,” he says.

However, there are strict regulations all pilots must adhere to during flight. The drone can’t be flown any lower than 50 feet above the pitch and mustn’t surpass a height of 400ft. They are also forbidden from filming at grounds which hold more than 1000 people.

“I normally stand around 50 metres away from the pitch as I get it airborne,” says Powderly. “Once it’s off the ground I stand on the touchline, just as I would normally do during a game. At first the noise it makes is a bit off putting, but the players soon get used to it.”

After delivering several presentations at conferences, the Charlton coach has been contacted by numerous clubs interested in learning more about the technology. “Tottenham are keen to see how they could use it with their academy,” he adds. “I’m meeting Espanyol’s manager [Quique Sanchez Flores] to give him a run through it. The Dutch FA and Ado den Haag are also keen.”

If the use of drones becomes widespread, it could also impact the job requirements of coaches and performance analysts across the game. “I know at least one role that has been advertised specifically asking for an analyst who has a drone license. With the size of budgets clubs have now everyone wants to gain a competitive edge, so I’ll think we’ll see more and more clubs training up staff and recruiting pilots.”

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