With the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the process of finalizing regulations allowing the widespread commercial use of drones by mid-2016, drones are set to become a common site in our skies. Also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and unmanned aircraft systems (UASs), drones are currently being used to monitor drug trafficking along U.S. borders and to conduct weather research, among other uses.
Drones also used for non-commercial purposes by tech enthusiasts who purchase drones from reputable online retailers. But as the technology improves and prices drop, various industries—including the sports industry—are beginning to recognize the untapped potential of drones.
Drones and Live Sports Coverage
The use of drones in live sports coverage is slowly expanding. Drones were used in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi to film skiing and snowboarding events. Drones were spotted hovering near the slopes by spectators, many of whom initially thought they were being used to search for terrorists and protesters.
Drones have also been used to film Formula One races, the X Games, the AMA Supercross Series, high school football practices, and extreme sports events such as surfing, snowboarding, and skateboarding. Outside the United States, drones have been used to film cricket matches in Australia and soccer games in Latin America.
Drones are used less by the NFL, as NFL stadiums have CableCam systems in place. The CableCam system is a type of computer-controlled and cable-suspended camera system that can be maneuvered over the playing area via a computer-controlled cable-drive system.
Despite its reliability, the CableCam system takes a long time to set up, is expensive, and is limited by its use of a cable-suspended camera system. Drones, in contrast, are quite easy to set up, are far more affordable, and aren’t limited in their live coverage area.
On the other hand, despite the ability to create interesting and unique vantage points, drone use is severely limited in live sports coverage because existing FAA regulations make it difficult to deploy drones in stadiums, arenas, and other venues.
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Drones and Sports Analytics
Drones are also being increasingly used by sports organizations to gather analytics about their teams. College football teams, for example, have used drones to record games and practices. The resulting footage is analyzed using full video analysis tools that can be accessed on computers, tablets, and smartphones.
UCLA football coach Jim Mora says his team uses footage provided by drones to analyze hand placement, foot placement, and spacing. Baseball teams such as the Washington Nationals have also used drones to capture aerial images during games.
High school football teams see drones as a cost-efficient and practical alternative to Skycam systems like the CableCam. As the technology continues to improve, custom drone packages may soon be more widely available to high school football teams and other sporting leagues that want to construct visual playbooks.
The Future of Drones in Sports
Currently, vendors who are seeking to operate a drone for commercial use, such as film and television production, scientific research, as well as sports coverage, must have an FAA 333 Exemption. The Section 333 Exemption gives operators safe and legal entry into U.S. Airspace.
Privacy remains a major issue with drones, and some states and counties have passed laws that limit drone usage. However, future legislation can ease many of these restrictions as people begin to see the benefits that come with regulated drone usage.
“As the technology [progresses], it’ll be safer. Not that it isn’t safe already, but there’s a lot of room for operator error. The industry has to keep progressing, but it’ll add more clients and add more components to the safety aspect as time goes on,” notes Ryan Baker, founder of the Houston-based drone manufacturer Arch Aerial.
Drone operators are currently exploring the safest and most efficient ways to integrate drones into live sports broadcast and sports performance analysis. Drone technology will have to adapt if drones are to become a permanent fixture in live sports coverage and sports performance analysis.