FutureSPORT: When Will Drones Take Flight for Live Sports Coverage?

Over the past three years, the use of live drone coverage has become an increasingly hot topic in live sports production. Broadcasters and leagues see the potential to create unique new angles and capture competition like never before. However, drones have seen exponential growth in coaching videos and closed-set sports productions, but their use at sports events is still extremely rare because FAA regulations make it difficult to deploy drones in stadiums, arenas, and other venues filled with fans.

With that in mind, a panel at SVG’s FutureSPORT last week addressed the role drones play in sports production and the latest updates regarding FAA regulations, as well as how drone cameras are carving out a niche at events like the U.S. Open and X Games by capturing angles that would otherwise be impossible.

“A drone realistically picks up where a crane leaves off and where a helicopter can start, and that is a really exciting space,” said Randy Scott Slavin, founder/director, Yeah Drones. “It can go from the crane [height] all the way up to 400 ft. When you [use a drone], it should be different than a helicopter or a crane. I say, at the risk of taking money out of my own pocket, that it should make sense. If you want something done that a crane or helicopter could do more easily, then don’t hire a drone. But everything in between is exciting and new.”

The Legalese: All About the 333 Exemption
The bulk of the conversation regarding drones continues to center on FAA regulations that limit nearly all uses in live sports -production. There are signs of progress, however: most notably, the agency’s announcement last week that it will grant NFL and NFL Films permission to use drones and allow teams to film their own practices if they comply with local, state, and federal guidelines.

From left: Yeah Drones founder/director Randy Scott Slavin, SVG Senior Editor Brandon Costa, and Unmanned Aerial Systems Development co-founder Jeff Adams

From left: Yeah Drones founder/director Randy Scott Slavin, SVG Senior Editor Brandon Costa, and Unmanned Aerial Systems Development co-founder Jeff Adams

Currently, to operate a drone for commercial use (which includes anything from film and television production to scientific research and agriculture), a vendor must have an FAA 333 Exemption.

“The FAA is working as diligently as a massive federal organization can to get regulations in place,” said Jeff Adams, co-founder, Unmanned Aerial Systems Development. “They keep saying six months [to institute] an infrastructure for pilots and air frames to get registered and for companies to step up and say, ‘We are doing this commercially,’ and get their licensing together. But it’s going to take a long time because our airspace already has 7,000 vehicles in it every second of every day. If you add in 30,000 little pieces of plastic zipping around at 100 mph, it’s a complex system to work out.”

If a sports producer enlists a drone vendor to deploy aerial cameras, it must have a 333 Exemption, but, said Slavin, “we need to be good stewards of the FAA rules. You shouldn’t have to worry about that. That’s our job.”

Finding a Vendor Among the Drones
In any new bleeding-edge industry, it can be tough to select the best vendor from an army of up-and-comers. However, Slavin acknowledged that, while shooting with drones may be a different breed of production, it’s not so different from hiring any other crew or vendor.

“Flying a drone is no different than any of these other camera platforms. It’s amazing technology and new and exciting, but the reality of the work is that it’s not so different than a setting up a jib or technocrane or any other piece of equipment or hiring a Steadicam operator,” he said. “It’s complex, but that shouldn’t be something you have to worry about. You need to look at their reel, the quality of their work, and see what they have done and who their clients are.”

The Challenge of Live
Although drones are becoming commonplace for film and episodic-television productions, live sports coverage is a different story altogether. Aside from the legislative obstacles, drone operators are still exploring the most efficient ways to integrate these tools into the live broadcast.

“Live broadcast will throw different scenarios at you every second,” Adams noted. “Having a team that is able to adjust to those scenarios or find subject that is relevant at that point and can be taken live right at that moment is huge. And it’s not easy to do.”

Adams added that drone technology and design will also have to adapt if these sky-bound cameras are to become part of the everyday live sports coverage.

“It will also boil down to some of the physical limitations of the systems right now,” he said. “Our airframe runs on batteries, so it needs to come down every 15 minutes. For live broadcast, the control room doesn’t want a shot of my shoes while I’m changing the battery. There are developments coming in terms of more robust air systems with longer-term flight times. As those come on board, it will really help this technology translate into the live broadcast.”