For more than 50 years, the dramatic shot from a blimp floating high overhead has sent a clear message to TV viewers: You are watching a big-time event. Now, a new generation of photographers with drones is ready to bring that same technology to all levels of sports while giving audiences a perspective they’ve never seen before.
It helps that capturing breathtaking images with a drone has never been cheaper or easier. Prices start around $1,000 for a quadcopter small enough to fit into a backpack and equipped with a high-definition camera. And even a novice—me, for example—can have a drone up and running in minutes.
After an hour-long safety class at UAVDirect, a retailer in Liberty Hill, Texas, just outside of Austin, technology manager Eric Davis shows off a DJI Phantom II. He calls it “the iPhone of drones” because of its sleek looks and simple controls. Davis hands me the controls, and I’m airborne, zipping the drone through the Texas sky, stopping to hover over the football stadium in the distance before bringing it in for a landing. It’s thrilling—and suddenly clear why this is the future of sports photography.
A quick visit to YouTube shows what’s possible. Adrone watches from behind the line of scrimmage to give high school football coaches at Mississippi’s Jackson Academy a videogame perspective of their plays during practice. The University of Louisvilleswoops a drone through the stadium during a preseason scrimmage to build excitement for the season. Formula One races, PGA Tour events, surfers off the coast of California: All have been seen with a drone’s eye view.
But there’s a problem. Fly a drone over a sporting event and you may be running afoul of Federal Aviation Administration regulations.
For starters, the FAA bans the commercial use of drones without a waiver. Hobbyists can fly drones—officially known as unmanned aerial vehicles or unmanned aircraft systems—so long as they keep them away from airports, below 400 feet, and within operators’ sight.
“Any UAS use not for hobby or recreational purposes is subject to FAA regulations and needs FAA approval,” FAA spokesman Les Dorr says. “Regarding the use of UAS to monitor sports practices, we would need to determine who is operating the UAS, how, and for what purpose to determine if it’s being operated for hobby or recreation.”
But the line between commercial and hobby use is thinning, and the FAA is racing to keep up with the pace of change. Some drone industry experts compare it with the rift between ride-sharing services like Uber or Lyft and taxicab unions, another case where a disruptive force is foisting change upon an incumbent industry.
Drone enthusiasts are waiting for the FAA to come up with rules and standards to govern UAV as directed by Congress, but a recent government audit states that the agency is behind schedule and will miss its September, 2015 deadline.
“UAS (unmanned aerial systems) have been around for quite a while in less advanced forms, but now the technology has evolved so that the cost is much more accessible to the general user,” says Ryan Baker, whose Houston-based company, Arch Aerial, builds and sells its own line of UAVs. (Baker also spoke at a South by Southwest Interactive panel on drones in sports in March.) “People are beginning to realize just how useful these things are, not only for the general user, but also for commercial applications, and as a result they are only going to become more and more popular. We are designing our drones to be tough enough for commercial applications, but also affordable enough for the average user.”
There may be some movement, however. Last year, the government approved six sites for testing drones for wider commercial applications, and Nevada was on the list. That’s the home of DroneWorx, where media director Brett Kanda says his company is among 16 businesses (others includes Sony and Paramount) seeking an exemption from the commercial drone ban so they can film on closed sets. That would at least allow DroneWorx to shoot aerial footage for clients like the PGA Tour.
“The minute we get our Section 333 exemption and as soon as we’re commercially legal, the PGA Tour will be my first call,” says Kanda, a former college golfer at UNLV who also spent time on the pro tour. “I want to showcase these awesome locations. There’s nothing more beautiful than Pebble Beach.”
Until then, those looking to capture fantastic aerial footage will continue skirting the rules and exploring new facets of the technology, such as a “follow me” feature that allows a skier or mountain biker to be his or her own film crew, with a drone flying behind. In live broadcasting, a drone can send previously impossible dynamic views to the stadium JumboTron and the TV audience around the world.
“Somebody was asking me recently, ‘If this were a baseball game, what inning are we in, in terms of the technology?’,” says DJI’s Michael Perry. “I’d say we’re still waiting in line for tickets.