National Football League teams have taken to the skies in their search for a competitive edge, launching drones to film their practices.
“You can coach better. You see hand placement, you see where they have their feet and where they have their eyes,” said Jason Garrett, coach of the Dallas Cowboys.
The problem is, it’s illegal to fly the unmanned aircraft for any commercial purpose without first getting a Federal Aviation Administration waiver.
The FAA, when asked about drone use by three teams, said it has been in contact with the Cowboys to “explain the proper procedure for obtaining the necessary exemption.” It plans to reach out to two other teams that used the devices to film their own workouts: the New York Giants and the New England Patriots.
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It won’t be the first time the Patriots are asked about their camera work. The team was fined by the league in 2007 for surreptitiously videotaping competitors’ play signals from the sidelines. It’s currently embroiled in a scandal involving allegations they under-inflated footballs.
The FAA grants exemptions allowing people to use drones if they agree to follow procedures designed to reduce the risk of injury to people on the ground or interference with aircraft. Even small drones can harm someone if they fall from the sky or entangle fingers in the rotors.
More than 600 individuals and businesses, from farmers to filmmakers, have obtained FAA waivers as drone use booms. They’re using them to survey land, inspect power lines and photograph real estate.
None of the three teams have exemptions or provided evidence that the drones were being operated by someone with permission. Using drones in an indoor facility, or when operated by a contractor with FAA authorization, would be legal.
The Patriots and Cowboys wouldn’t say who operates their drones. Media reports say the Cowboys’ drone was used during the recent rookie minicamp by Southern Methodist University’s athletic department. SMU spokesman Samuel Ogden said they didn’t have FAA permission.
The Giants’ fly a DJI Phantom 3 themselves, according to spokesman Pat Hanlon. That model weighs less than three pounds.
The team’s video department practiced in an unoccupied field for three weeks before having it hover for 20 minutes 50 feet over the players and coaches at a minicamp, the team said on its website. Quarterbacks Eli Manning and Ryan Nassib “didn’t even notice it,” the team said.
Asked about the legality of the drone use, Hanlon said he couldn’t comment because the people he would need to speak with were unavailable in the offseason. Patriots spokesman Travis Basciotta also declined to comment. Cowboys spokesman David Abbruzese said the person who could discuss the matter was unavailable but provided a link to a video on the team’s website of Garrett talking to reporters last month about the team’s use of drones.
There is more NFL drone use than than the three teams Bloomberg initially asked the FAA about. On June 16, Tennessee Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt said they used one and joked with reporters that video director Anthony Pastrana didn’t have to get certified. However, any commercial use of a drone requires FAA approval.
“We came out yesterday and worked with it,” Whisenhunt said on a video on the team’s website. “It’s got a mechanism that will take it back to where it took off from if the battery gets low or if it has issues. Technology. I guess you have to trust it.”
Team spokesman Dwight Spradlin didn’t immediately return a voice message or e-mail Friday morning about FAA authorization. The FAA also had no immediate comment Friday on the Titan’s use of the devices.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league hasn’t heard from the FAA regarding individual teams’ drone use, and hasn’t had any internal discussions regarding leaguewide drone policies.
The FAA, which is in the process of completing regulations allowing commercial flights of drones weighing less than 55 pounds, says it takes an educational approach to disciplining violators. Only a handful of operators have been fined, including a man who used a drone to take promotional video of the University of Virginia.
Last year, the University of Michigan canceled plans to deliver the game ball to the 50-yard line with a drone after the FAA explained its rules to university officials.
There have been no known deaths due to the use of small drones, though there have been a handful of injuries, and in November the FAA reported there had been 193 incidents in which drones came too close to other aircraft.
Companies seeking to insure their drones are obtaining exemptions more quickly, said Terry Miller, president of the Colorado-based Transport Risk Management Inc., an insurance brokerage company that provides coverage for more than 2,700 drones.
“Just this morning we’ve had five applications,” and four had exemptions, said Miller in a phone interview Thursday. “Ninety days ago, it’s likely that none of them would have had them.”
Miller said two recent applications came from professional sports teams, which he declined to name.
Not all coaches were as effusive as Garrett regarding the advantages of drones. When asked last month about the camera filming practice, Patriots coach Bill Belichick responded in his typically brusque manner.
“I don’t know,” he said, and moved on to the next question.