An Update on Drones in Sports

Drones racing each other at breakneck speeds through an abandoned industrial complex, controlled through VR goggles that broadcast a first-person view simultaneously to the operators and fans alike.

This may seem futuristic, but it was actually one of the most imminent ideas recently discussed in a special panel dedicated to “Drones In Sports”. At last week’s On Deck Sports and Technology Conference, three drone sport experts came together to talk about the potential–and the potential pitfalls–that drones may provide for the future of sports technology.

As one panelist put it, drones in sports are currently “kind of a Wild West opportunity”, and Matt Higgins, CEO of RSE Ventures and vice-chairman of the Miami Dolphins, kicked the panel off with the example of the Drone Racing League. Earlier this year, the DRL started informally as groups of hobbyists flying drones through parking garages and abandoned buildings, but plans are in the works to turn it into a full-fledged sport, pitting sponsored teams of self-taught drone specialists against ex-military UAV pilots.

The DRL held their first two test flights earlier this year in the New York metro area, and plans to release their first official video “in the next few weeks.” When Higgins (an investor in the DRL) was asked how to make this a spectator sport, though, he responded candidly, “I have no clue.” He expects that streaming services like Twitch and Meerkat will be critical in building fan engagement with drone racing — and there certainly aren’t a lack of ideas to spice the sport up, as Bradley Woodrum outlined earlier this year.

Companies are also thinking about how drones can be used to improve the experience for players and fans in more traditional sports. In the eyes of the panelists, the “low-hanging fruit” was using drones to provide new angles for gameplay and practice, but the Amazon “drone-delivery” model was also a clear influence. The possibilities bantered about by the panel seemed limitless. Dispatching drones on golf courses for tee-side food delivery, handing out tickets with drones during games, the drone t-shirt cannon…

…wait a second, “the drone t-shirt cannon”?

It’s an undeniably cool idea, but taking a few seconds to visualize an unmanned aerial vehicle launching anything at fans may remind you that drones still face a number of psychological (and legal) obstacles. Eben Novy-Williams (a reporter for Bloomberg and the panel’s moderator) noted, as one example, that he was at a recent triathlon where a drone filming at the finish line elicited divided reactions–half the audience loved it, but the other half was clearly uncomfortable.

Chris Proudlove (an aerospace insurance expert with Global Aerospace) agreed that “we’re not quite there” when it comes to drones flying over crowds and that we need to “build a public sense that drones will be operated safely”, but that at the same time we don’t want to overstate the risk. The top concern of Proudlove’s clients when discussing drones was “invasion of privacy,” but he predicted this would be “moot” in less than 10 years. We’ve already become accustomed to ubiquitous smartphones that record video; from a certain perspective, drones aren’t terribly novel, just an extension of technology. The rest of the panel was even more bullish about the long-term prospects of us welcoming our new drone overlords.

But there’s still a lot to be done to make drones seem — and be — safer. Chris described geofencing technology to keep drones in and out of certain locations, such as ‘within the stadium, but at least 20 meters from the stands’, and better use of parachutes and other physical features. (Many of us probably remember the recent drone crash during the 2015 tennis U.S. Open, but the panelists were also well-aware of the 1979 mishap where a lawnmower-shaped model plane killed a fan during halftime at a Jets-Patriots game.) Chris also suggested that regulations distinguishing ‘micro-drones’ (of less than 2 pounds) and ‘the big ones’ could make drone safety easier.

In fact, the panel generally agreed that regulatory issues were the primary roadblock currently facing drones in sports. Right now, commercial use of drones (in the US) is illegal except when exemptions are provided by the FAA, and this is expected to remain the status quo until the FAA issues a full ruling on drones sometime in 2017. Until then, companies will need to build their usage of drones on a case-by-case basis. (Late last week, for example, the news broke that the FAA had allowed the NFL an exemption for drone usage — but only in empty stadiums.)

In short, it looks like we haven’t yet reached a drone-filled future of sport, but that day is likely drawing nigh. When Eben asked the panel for a bold “five-year prediction,” panelist Jon Ollwerther suggested that by 2020, we’d see drones being used in “every major American sport”– even down to the high school level.

Brice lives in the Washington, DC area, where he does communications for linguistics and space exploration organizations. Brice has previously written for Ars Technica, Discovery News and the Winston-Salem Journal. He's on Twitter at @KilroyWasHere.

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