From left to right: Eben Novy-Williams, Bloomberg News; Matt Higgins, RSE Ventures; Jon Ollwerther, Aerobo; Chris Proudlove, Global Aerospace

Sep 23 2015

Use of Drones in Professional Sports Is Still in Its Infancy, but Interest Is Growing

A panel of drone experts weighs in on the current and future state of drone usage in sports entertainment.

We’re a few months away from Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” issue, but a strong case could be made for the drone landing that coveted title for 2015. (Yes, a drone is not a person, but the computer won the honor back in 1982, so it’s not unprecedented.)

Drones have stormed our newsfeeds, headlines and timelines this year in numerous ways. Wedding photographers and videographers are using them to capture perspectives they wouldn’t have been able to achieve before, and retailers are floating the idea of delivery by drones. But another industry where drones are also making waves is in professional sports.

The PGA Tour has incorporated drones in its broadcast coverage of tournaments to great success. And some NFL teams have been quietly using drones to capture practice footage. In fact, the NFL just won approval from the FAA to officially use drones for filming, though this permission is restricted to when the stadiums are empty.

Safety Concerns About Using Drones in Sports

For broadcast and entertainment purposes, the value proposition for drones in sports makes sense. But the biggest concern around the use of drones in sports is safety. There was a recent scare at the U.S. Open tennis tournament this month when a drone flown by a teacher outside of the venue accidentally landed in an empty section of the arena during a game.

At the 2015 On Deck Sports and Technology Conference, a panel of drone experts gathered to speculate on the future of drones in sports and though there was support broadly for the technology’s future growth, some perspectives were more measured than others.

One of the biggest challenges drones in sports face is the same challenge that drones face overall: regulation. The Federal Aviation Administration has been working on regulation for drones for some time, and they’ve granted permission for their use in limited instances, but the rulings have been unclear and often sweeping in nature.

For example, there’s no distinction in regulation between a 5-pound drone versus a 50-pound drone, said Chris Proudlove, senior vice president of aviation insurance company Global Aerospace.

No one has been killed yet by the multirotor aircraft-style drones, which have been around in some form since 2008 and are rising in popularity, said Jon Ollwerther, vice president of marketing and operations for Aerobo, a company that specializes in helping clients design and operate drones.

There are several ways that technology can continue to make drone operations safer, of course. One of them is through geofencing, which would restrict drones from flying outside of invisible digital barriers. The other is through more physical means such as netting, said Proudlove.

Why Drones Matter in Sports

The most important thing that drones can offer to sports is the advantage of perspective.

Football plays are often shot overhead. Drones allow teams to get that perspective much more safely than having someone film practices from a crane. For broadcasts, this is invaluable, as the cost associated with using a drone to capture such footage is significantly less than the cost of using a crane.

For fans, strapping cameras to drones to provide live video feeds during a game offer fans a first-person perspective that could enhance their loyalty to the team, particularly for those who like to watch their sports on second screens such as notebook computers or mobile devices.

Drone flight, in and of itself is becoming a sport as well, not merely a tool for capturing sports footage. Matt Higgins, co-founder and CEO of sports and entertainment venture firm RSE Ventures, is bullish about drone racing, which his firm has invested in directly with the Drone Racing League. He thinks that drone racing is on track to grow in popularity along with the rise of  e-sports, competitive video gaming.

Whether through spectators or an active participants, the appetite for drones in sports is clearly growing fast.

“We’re in the first inning of what’s going to be an incredibly wild ride,” said Higgins.

Ricky Ribeiro