Eyes in the sports sky

Drones are coming to a sports field near you, and not just for pretty video

Updated: May 29, 2014, 10:38 AM ET
By Paula Lavigne | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- Even though it buzzes loudly and flashes green and red lights, the Phantom drone hovering about 20 feet above a UCLA football field seems to go unnoticed by players completing passing drills at a spring practice.

While non-military drones outfitted with video cameras have provided stunning aerial footage to entertain fans and craft promotional videos, their main use at UCLA is for analytics that cannot be gathered from traditional uses of video equipment.

"Hand placement. Foot placement. Spacing," said head football coach Jim Mora. "When it hovers above the line of scrimmage, you can get a real clear perspective of spacing between your offensive linemen, or differences in depth of the rush lanes of your defensive linemen."

Mora said it's not a gimmick.

"It's cool, yeah, and it looks neat and it's fun and it generates a lot of excitement, but at the same time, there are very specific reasons why we use it and we get a lot out of it," Mora said.

Using drone footage to gather information or data -- instead of just images -- is catching on at several other college football programs, and in sports in general: The PGA Tour has used drones and is considering using them to take video of all of its courses. Drones have been used to film Formula One races, high school football practices, surfers, snowboarders and other extreme sports. Outside the United States, they've been used to shoot cricket matches in Australia, soccer games in Brazil and snowboarding during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

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ESPNUCLA head football coach Jim Mora said that while a drone at practice may seem like a gimmick, the information the drone provides his coaching staff is anything but.

Yet the laws and rules addressing the use of drones in the United States remain murky.

The Federal Aviation Administration has been issuing cease-and-desist orders to drone operators it believes are violating the law. The issue hit the sports world in March when the FAA admonished a crew that flew a drone over the Washington Nationals' spring training facility; however, the FAA told "Outside the Lines" it has never issued a cease-and-desist order directly to a sports team or league.

Drone advocates say the federal laws are being misinterpreted, and until the FAA comes up with specific regulations for drones, the agency can't stand in their way. They've been bolstered by a ruling in March by a federal administrative law judge who tossed out a $10,000 fine the FAA had levied against a commercial drone operator in Virginia who had shot footage of a college campus, saying the FAA had no authority over small unmanned aircraft.

An FAA spokesperson wrote in an email that the agency could not say whether specific instances of using drones in sports would be legal, saying such examples were too hypothetical and the agency considers who flies a drone "and for what purpose when determining whether it [is] being done for hobby or recreation" before it decides whether the usage complies with law.

The FAA is working with "a few distinct industries" to see if it can expand "authorized commercial operations for limited applications in very controlled environments and with low risk," the spokesperson said. Sports is not yet one of those industries, but the spokesperson said, "We would welcome it."

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the drone industry's advocacy group, also lists the National Football League among sports organizations interested in drones, stating that the NFL "has expressed replacing the Goodyear blimps and tethered SkyCams" with drones, but an NFL spokesman said that was false. He said the only drone issue for the NFL recently was a request by a media outlet to operate a drone outside MetLife Stadium around the time of the Super Bowl, which the league denied for security reasons.

The NFL and some colleges use cable-suspended cameras to get aerial shots during games, and it is unlikely that drones, with their 20-to-30-minute battery life, could replace them anytime soon. But drones could be used for getting select shots over practice fields or by programs that can't afford a cable-cam system, because a good drone can be had for $500 to $1,000. High schools and colleges, including UCLA, continue to use cameras on lifts or ladders, but drones offer advantages in that they can follow a play across a field and can capture unobstructed images from directly overhead.

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ESPNA drone used for high school football practices in Texas.

Drones also make sense for sports in which cable cams or mounted cameras are logistically unfeasible, such as a golf course or Formula One racetrack. A company called AeroTrainer is working with athletes at a handful of high schools and colleges to test an analytics system that combines drones and wearable biometric sensors. Its vision is to help improve performance and reduce the risk of injuries. A runner, for example, could even have the drone programmed to "race" against her in an adjacent lane to "help pace or motivate," according to the company's website.

Drones have even come to one of the world's oldest team sports -- polo. The sport of kings traces its history to 600 B.C., but it wasn't until this year that it finally had the means to measure the accuracy of its officiating.

U.S. Polo Association umpires are overseen by Charles Muldoon, who said polo is a difficult sport to officiate because it involves eight horses and riders competing over a space of about 10 acres. In polo, horses and players have to line up parallel to the lead player, so it's important that umpires position themselves in a way to best read the location of that imaginary line.

"We talk about positioning and you tell [umpires], 'You've got to get close. You've got to get more on the right side. You've got to get more on the left side,' and they kind of go, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah,'" Muldoon said. "Then the umpires see the drone footage that shows them out of position, and they're going, 'Oh my god.' And it's changed them for the better."

USPA spokesman Jim Rossi said the association has been using drones since late last year and plans to include some drone footage in its NBC broadcast of the U.S. Polo Open next month. It wants to eventually use drone footage for instant replay and even live broadcasts, something that TV networks have considered as the technology has emerged.

"ESPN has not used this technology on our productions because of FAA regulations," said Josh Krulewitz, ESPN vice president of communications. He said some independent production companies supplying video to the network have and that the company reminds such companies to comply with regulations.

Rossi said the association did look into the legality of drones before using them and still considers their use "experimental."

"That law or that rule or whatever it is, is quite nebulous in terms of how it's worded, so I'm not sure exactly what the limitations are at this point, but we've been very diligent about following that as best we can," Rossi said.

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ESPNKen Norris, UCLA's director of video operations, operates the drone in practices.

Even the FAA's former chief counsel, attorney Kenneth Quinn, said determining whether drone use is legal is "a very complicated question."

"The laws are in a state of flux, both at the federal and it's changing very dramatically from state to state," said Quinn, who is now a partner with Washington, D.C., firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, which in March launched a special team of lawyers focused on drone issues.

While the FAA is concerned about privacy, security and safety when it comes to drones, it is actually the exchange of money that makes their use illegal, Quinn said. A hobbyist flying one to shoot video of his kid skateboarding is OK, but a commercial company doing the same is not.

"If you're doing it and there's any compensation whatsoever to a drone operator or company to assist you in that video surveillance, then the answer would be no," he said, adding that it could also be illegal for an assistant coach, who is paid by a university, to operate a drone as part of his duties.

That kind of thinking seems backward to Ken Norris, director of video operations at UCLA and the official drone pilot.

"You don't want to put these in the hands of some inexperienced kid who wants to do who knows what. The blades could probably tear somebody up," he said. "I would want a guy that's qualified, that's using it professionally."

But without a standard in place, an FAA spokesperson said that there is no guarantee that someone wanting to use a drone for commercial purposes would have more training or better equipment than a hobbyist.

Norris trained extensively on his drone and said he takes several precautions, such as not flying it too high and always keeping it within his line of sight -- which is important considering helicopters frequently land a few blocks away on the roof of the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. He echoes the sentiment of several other drone operators who say they would be in favor of an FAA licensing or certification requirement to keep things safe.

And Mora insists that his team's drone use be ethical as well. It's about 12 miles as the crow flies from UCLA's campus to USC, but Mora says he isn't going to be tempted to use UCLA's camera-equipped aerial drone to spy on its in-state rival.

"Yeah, I don't think it has that range. If we could get one with a 12-mile range ..." he said, chuckling. "Nah, we're not going to do that. We're going to play by the rules."

Producer Andy Lockett of ESPN's Enterprise/Investigative Unit contributed to this report.

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