Privacy remains a big issue with drones. Regardless of what the FAA does, some states and counties may pass more restrictive laws regarding drone uses. Most state laws, however, have focused on limiting the use of drones by law enforcement without a warrant. However, future legislation could impact sports drone photography in some parts of the country.
"There is some drone paranoia but I think [within time] more people will realize they can be used for many applications," says Vilevac.
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There have been a few of incidents in recent years with drone failures resulting in injuries. In April, a videographer lost control of his machine and crashed into an athlete at a triathlon in western Australia. There have also been drone crashes reported in New York and St. Louis. McMahan advocates training and practice.
"Some people can just jump in with both feet [and little practice] and it can be dangerous. They are getting easier to operate but there is still a huge lack of experience," he says.
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Gielow anticipates some sort of training requirement and licensing by the FAA when commercial rules are released. Some drone operators say the technology is not quite ready for mass deployment. Brandon McMahan, president of AGL Aerial in Alabaster, Alabama, prefers to avoid flying over people and crowds.
"I personally don't think it's safe because there's always a small chance that something could fail. I don't think the technology is there yet in terms of a reliability standpoint," says McMahan.
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Ben Gielow, general counsel for the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, says interest from sports teams, leagues and events is growing significantly.
"We're hearing from just about every kind of sporting activity out there. They're interested in monitoring, broadcasting it back or offering a new vantage point," says Gielow.
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There currently are no laws against flying drones, but the FAA doesn't officially permit their use for commercial purposes either. Nevertheless, an NTSB judge ruled the FAA had no jurisdiction to regulate unmanned aircraft, throwing out one case where the FAA attempted to fine a user.
"It seems to be case-by-case [enforcement]. If you're staying below 400 feet within line of sight and are not selling the footage, there shouldn't be a problem," says Baker.
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Matthew Vilevac, vice president of Cleveland Aerial Media, says drones offer great opportunity in sports coverage because of their maneuverability. They have the ability to fly five feet off the ground to obtain a side view of a player or fly as high as 400 feet to obtain a bird's-eye view.
"It's a very cost-effective tool with great maneuverability to be used in sports. We think there is great potential," says Vilevac.
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A number of college and professional sports teams have started using drones. UCLA football coach Jim Mora told ESPN in May his team was using a drone to analyze things like hand placement, foot placement and spacing. The Washington Nationals also recently used a drone to capture aerial images at a game.
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Ryan Baker, founder of Arch Aerial in Houston, says there’s been strong interest from sporting leagues looking to deploy drones as an eye in the sky for training and coverage purposes. His company sells custom drone packages ready to shoot photo and video.
"We've had high school football coaches reaching out to us wanting to use them as tools to construct visual playbooks," he says.
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The Parrot AR 2.0 Drone features an onboard 720 HD camera and can be operated via a remote control or tablet devices with iOS or Android operating systems. The "Director Mode" app allows the user to program the drone to run customer movements like traveling, panning or craning at set speeds.
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The DJI Phantom is one of the most popular machines on the market. Starting at $479, it comes "ready to fly" straight out of the box. It has GPS guidance along with a number of safety features including a fail-safe return-to-home automatic landing when the machine senses a low battery or lost signal.
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Drones come in all shapes and sizes from three-pound quadcopters (helicopter with four rotors) to 1,000-pound planes. Most consumer-level quadcopters are capable of carrying a small camera and can fly for about 10 minutes. The quality of the photos and video largely depends on the stability of the machine and the skill of the operator.
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Paul Morris, owner of Miami Aerial, says while drones have been around for years, their falling prices and new operating systems are making them more accessible.
"You can buy a $500 drone that just about anybody can pilot without much training. A lot of the innovation has been on the software side," says Morris.
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