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Game of Drones: Sports Events Weigh Use of UAVs

12 Nov, 2014

By: Tracey Schelmetic

Attack of the drones? Depends on who’s doing the talking.

The reliance on small, unmanned aircraft flown via remote control in order to get aerial shots is increasingly commonplace in sports. (In fact, the terms, unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs, have come into play instead of the militaristic ‘drone’).

Being smaller, quieter and cheaper than helicopters has fueled the popularity of UAVs as does the fact that they require no complex on-site set-up, as is the case with suspended overhead camera systems.

But not everyone is a fan. Many countries have stiff regulations when it comes to the use of drones, and broadcasters who break rules (knowingly or unknowingly) find themselves in serious trouble.

In some cases, UAVs have even caused havoc at sports events; at an October soccer match between Albania and Serbia, the use of a craft carrying a pro-Albanian message created an on-field fight that resulted in arrests. It’s far from the first unauthorized use of UAVs, either. According to the Washington Post, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is currently investigating several incidents that occurred this fall in which “thrill-seekers with small, camera-toting drones” made passes over large outdoor sporting events, violating airspace rules. Unauthorized drones have been spotted at both major college football games and NFL games. The problem is expected to get worse as the price of these small, personal UAVs come down. Some of the units on the market today cost as little as $500 and can fly to 1,000 feet in altitude.

Fearing for crowd safety – the rotating blades of a UAV could cause severe injury were it to crash into a packed stadium’s stands – the FAA has taken steps to bring the law up to date with the technology. In late October, the agency updated an existing ban on airplane flights over open-air stadiums with 30,000 or more spectators by extending it to cover “unmanned aircraft and remote controlled aircraft.” This ruling has already been challenged as it applies to drones, and the agency (or a court decision) will be needed to clarify whether drones actually qualify as “aircraft.”

Depending on how this ruling goes, in the future, UAVs may become even more of a staple of sports coverage thanks to technological advancements. A company called Falkor Systems is working on a drone that will be capable of automatically hovering near an athlete at a distance far enough for safety but close enough to catch perspectives that escape other types of sports. Speaking to LiveScience recently, Falkor’s CEO Sameer Parekh says the company plans to make the autonomous UAV technology a platform so other developers can use it to create more applications.

This open application platform could help bring down costs. Currently, drones may be a great way to catch sports moments from a different perspective, but they are not cheap at the professional level. UAVs for professional sports coverage must be sturdier (i.e., significantly more expensive) than hobbyist versions in order to accommodate professional camera equipment and transmission devices.

Another aspect to consider is whether the governing bodies of sports will become involved in rulings concerning juxtaposition of UAVs to athletes. Overhead clearances in facilities are mandated, as are other dimensions; it remains to be seen what direction the issue will take.

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