After I recently asked my twin sons for ideas for fun activities they might want to do with me independent of one another, one suggested he'd love to build a model airplane or to perhaps try flying a drone aircraft. His suggestion made me recall my own childhood fascination with aviation, and we agreed to visit a hobby store soon. Our conversation also sparked thoughts about how the incredible growth of the drone industry might fit into the wider world of sports.
Most observers of geopolitics are well aware of the military importance of unmanned aerial vehicles, to use the military nomenclature for drones. They are famous for their roles as surveillance platforms, used by militaries and intelligence services alike. But they also possess a number of other potential uses. The U.S. Navy, for example, is developing an unmanned aerial refueling tanker that can be deployed on an aircraft carrier. In addition, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is exploring tactics related to the deployment of large numbers of very small drones through its OFFSET (Offensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics) program.
The qualities that make drones useful in military operations have caught the attention of the sports world. Photographers, for example, have employed drones in coverage of sporting events to capture stunning images from perspectives never before available. And television broadcasts of sporting events now regularly feature shots from drones. "You spend a lot of money for the right to broadcast certain things," Fox Sports' senior vice president of field and technical operations Michael Davies told Digiday. "To be able to differentiate yourself by showing people something new or different from what they're normally used to, it's worth the investment for us."
A Change in Perspective
A number of sports teams have also taken advantage of the high-resolution cameras that even small unmanned aerial vehicles now commonly carry. CBS Sports reported in 2015 that the NFL's Dallas Cowboys had begun using drones to take video of their own practices. This approach, said head coach Jason Garrett, offered greater detail than existing film techniques and better insights into player performance. "The drone angle is interesting because it gives you a chance from behind to see all 11 guys on offense and all 11 guys on defense, but from a lower angle," he told CBS. "This allows you to be a little closer, so you can coach better. ... You see hand placement, you see where they have their feet and where they have their eyes. I think that's important. You can look at the players and coach them better when you're that much closer to the action."
This all said, even with the benefits they can offer, sports teams increasingly fret about whether drone technologies might be turned against them. In the NFL "Spygate" scandal, the New England Patriots' illicit video recordings of opponents' coaching signals demonstrated the degree to which at least one team would go to obtain an advantage. Before last year's Super Bowl, security personnel spotted (and then grounded) a drone hovering around an Atlanta Falcons pregame practice session. While the drone's controller turned out to be an amateur flyer who lived nearby, the fact remains that for teams willing to break the rules, drones offer a proven technology with which to gather intelligence on rival teams' planning, personnel use and play signaling. Sports Illustrated reported that after the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers erected a two-story tall tarp to obscure one of the team's practice facilities, head coach Mike Tomlin said, "This is interesting times, drones and so forth, you know? We do what we've got to do to prepare and be ready to play — and play on a level, fair, competitive playing field."
A New Wrinkle in Security
Spying capabilities aside, the organizers of sporting competitions as well as government policymakers must now deal with potential risks associated with the presence of drones over stadiums. The recent alleged attempt to assassinate Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro using explosive-carrying drones helps to illuminate one such danger.
As to the scale of the regulatory challenge, it is perhaps helpful to know that government officials believe that over 1 million drones are in existence. The Federal Aviation Administration requires drone owners to register their devices, which fall under an FAA rule prohibiting aircraft from flying near stadiums that have at least a 30,000-person capacity. But amateur flyers don't always comply. In May 2017, for example, a small drone crashed into spectators at the San Diego Padre's Petco Park. But there was no indication of ill intent in that incident. Even if a malefactor sought to use a drone against a large stadium crowd, chances are it would result in more commotion than carnage. As the technology exists today, the limits of payload and range mean there are other, less complicated ways to effectively target a large sporting event than using a modified drone.
But as the capabilities of drone technology grow, so will the security concerns surrounding them. According to a Washington Post article published a few months ago, a gap exists in the current regulatory approach to drones in the United States. In that report, NFL Senior Vice President Jocelyn Moore said, "Federal law prohibits local law enforcement from disarming or disabling drones, even if they are in restricted airspace. This loophole in federal law puts the safety and security of millions of sports fans and eventgoers at risk."
These and other regulatory issues will only grow in importance as drones become ever more commonplace. The just begun 2018 NFL season may provide a glimpse as to the future of drones in the context of sports.