Safety & Security

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Game of Drones: Spying is Coming…to a Ballpark Near You

6 May, 2015

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
As Devices Come Down in Price, Expect Them to be Used for Surveillance of the Competition in Sports

The image of the trench-coat-wearing spy lurking in the bleachers and surreptitiously watching the opponent's practice from behind dark glasses has been replaced by the concept of an unmanned aerial vehicle the size of a dragonfly that sails through the doors of the training room to spy unnoticed on game plans and coaches' conversations.

In other words, the clandestine practice of watching the competition get ready for a big game is poised to take a giant and sneaky step forward, thanks (or no thanks) to the use of drones.

In a recent article in Forbes Magazine, contributor Roger Groves noted that ever-smaller remote-controlled aircraft are being developed; some are expected to be insect-sized. And those, he noted, could – at least in theory – not just fly unnoticed over an opponent’s practices prior to a big game and record plays, but could take it one step further, slipping inside training facilities to record conversations, take pictures of game plans on white boards and more.

Wow. Gives the term, ‘planting a bug,’ a whole new meaning.

It’s not all that far-fetched, really. Remote-controlled aircraft units (also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs) are already available on the open market for consumers and have already created their own micro-economy. An article in US News and World Report noted a Teal Group statistic that spending on unmanned aerial vehicles is projected to double over the next decade, from about $6.4 billion a year to $11.5 billion a year.  The Drones Data X Conference Santa Cruz , held May 1-3 at the Kaiser Permanente Arena, saw experts and enthusiasts coming together to discuss development of robotics, computer vision, UAVs and more, as well as to offer demos, participate in drone racing and other activities.

Already, drones are popularly used for aerial photography of sports events. (We all saw the spectacular results at the Sochi Olympics when drones were able to track the ski and snowboard events). An article last year in The Atlantic noted the growing sophistication of drone units, including one prototype that can automatically follow an athlete from a few feet away.

And since drones were originally designed for surveillance in traditional warfare, it’s only a short step to their next use, adds Groves in his article:

“We’ve had snooping scandals before in the NFL. Why would we assume there will never be another? It is not unreasonable to think that over-zealousness is in the DNA of at least some of highly competitive people.  Some of those people may work for pro and college teams where a job, and the ability to feed the family they love, depends on wins. A little drone may just create the slight edge to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Gambling has been illegal but still prevalent in far more risky venues within sports.”

This could happen at any level, from Little League to Major League, from pee-wee to pro.

Drone use as a whole is largely unregulated, and Groves notes the NCAA has yet to establish a prohibition on the use of drones by the sports programs of its member institutions. In addition, there is no collective bargaining agreement by any of the major US professional sports leagues that specifically prohibits the use of drones. Of course there are broad provisions in the CBAs against stealing team secrets – but someone has to be caught first. That might be much harder to do if the culprit were a nearly silent, bug-sized drone that lurked out of sight.

Trying to send drones into locker rooms for surveillance absolutely would be illegal, and although photography in such areas has been recognized as a problem and has been harshly dealt with, it’s still not too hard to imagine the potential for drone use in those areas  – and the havoc that could ensue.

But back to the original issue. Are there any regulations prohibiting the use of drones as spyware in sports? Not yet. However, says Groves, it’s a problem that is waiting to happen, and for that reason, perhaps it's legislation waiting to happen as well:

“I have no doubt that there are eager young geeky sports-crazed entrepreneurs willing to develop and make money from such devices. They come may come in the form of a graduate student who takes research to a new twisted direction. It may be a private company wanting to establish a twisted relationship with a graduate assistant who desperately wants to impress the coaching staff with his knowledge of offensive schemes so he can get that next assistant coach position.”

Or maybe, it’s just someone who wants to win badly enough to break rules that don’t yet exist.

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