2 Viewpoints: The Value and Risks of Football Drones

The Use of Drones in High School Football

Football drones can be a subject of much controversy. Is the quality and value of the video worth the potential distraction to players and officials? Does the unique video perspective help coaches develop their student athletes faster than traditional video?  While there are many sides to this debate, we will explore the potential benefits and a risks to the use of drone video.

During pregame, football officiating crews perform essential duties such as inspecting players, communicating with coaches, and coordinating with game administrators.  This ensures all participants know their responsibilities and the game begins on time.  Another opportunity also exists before the start of the game, meeting the drone pilot filming the contest.

Traditionally, football teams filmed their games using endzone and sideline cameras.  Now, high schools are turning to drone videography which provides a whole new view of the field.  However, before any drone takes flight at a football stadium, many requirements and regulations must be followed.  Safety is of paramount importance and there is always concern about potential distraction when football drones are used.

Drone Regulations and Safety

The most important stipulation is that the host school district must provide written guidance for drone operations during any regular season contest in Colorado, per CHSAA policy.  While a number of schools in Colorado have authorized drone operations, their are quite a few that have not.  In considering this decision, the school district reviews risk mitigation factors, insurance, liability, and overall cost.  Feedback from coaches and players may also influence the decision as drone videography offers unique perspectives during all phases of the game.  It’s a balance of benefit vs. risk.

With pre-approval from the host school district in hand, regulatory compliance and onsite safety are the absolute responsibility of the drone pilot filming the game.  Each Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-certified pilot must be knowledgeable in aviation regulations, effects of weather, different types of airspace, and operational requirements.  Drone pilots must maintain visual line of sight with their aircraft at all times.

These are more than just a “hobbyist” pilots, they are very well trained in what they do.   FAA regulations stipulate drones cannot be flown over gatherings of people or individuals.  Based on the stadium layout, most pilots will be positioned towards a sideline nearest an endzone.  This location separates the pilot from any crowds, as well as optimizes drone landings and takeoffs to allow for battery changes.

Drone operations near airports and during the evening are generally prohibited by the FAA.  Wait, drones can’t be used in the evenings? So how can drone pilots film an evening football game near a local airport?  The answer is an FAA waiver.  Pilots must submit a comprehensive proposal (a waiver) to the FAA describing additional safety measures while flying during the evening or within the proximity of an airport.

If a pilot is to fly a drone in the evening, they must ensure that the drone is equipped with strobe lights that are visible from over three miles away.  Additionally, pilots are required to have another person (a visual observer) watching the drone at all times.  The bottom line is that operational safety throughout the flight rests exclusively on the drone pilot.

The Downside of Football Drones

Drones sound safe, but whats the downside to using them?  There are two main issues to consider, the first is noise.  The powerful propellers do generate sound and their is a perception that the noise produced can be distracting to players and officials during the game.  Especially if one school playing is not used to being int he vicinity of a drone, it’s movements and sound could potentially cause a player to lose momentary focus, the same goes for officials.

The second issue is mechanical failure.  While a ton of preparation, training and safety goes into filing a game with the drone, it’s still a mechanical device and could fail in the middle of a contest.  If such a failure happens will it gracefully drift to a safe landing or crash down on the field during play?  While there are plenty of drone accident videos online, there is currently no documented drone incidents or injuries reported during a football game.

Drone Summary

The ‘old school’ way of filming football games is changing, and drones are becoming a large part of that change.  Safe drone operations begin well before any football game.  Drone pilots must be certified with the FAA and obtain approval from the host school district.  During the game, all operational requirements and regulations must be followed.  As an official, if you have an extra moment before the game, stop by and meet the drone pilot.

Drones allow high school coaches and athletes to get a perspective of the game that used to be reserved for professional sports like the NFL.  Now schools can develop their teams and players to a whole new level, but is it worth the potential risks or distraction to the game?  That’s up to you to decide.

Additional Resources on Football Drone Use:

Sample Colorado Drone Football Video – From Denver Area 1
 
2019 CHSAA Policy on Football Drones
 
 
Colleges are Protecting Games from Football Drones – Rogue Pilots are Getting Arrested
 
 
ABC News Alabama Investigates Football Drones at High School Games
 
 
New Buzz Around High School Football Drones
 
 
Prep Football Gets Digital with Drones

 

About the Author:  Michael P. Buchkoski is an active member of DFOA and a 3rd year official.  As both a private pilot and commercial drone pilot, Michael enjoys all aspects of aviation on and off the field.

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