The Future of Broadcasting: Drones

Unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones, have been a hot topic in the news in recent years. More businesses are finding ways to utilize drones to become more efficient and to lower costs while also providing new angles to view the world. No doubt, the sports industry and the broadcasting industry know the benefits of using drones to film their events. However, they must be aware of the legal background behind drone usage.

The use of drones is not recent, but actually dates back to as early as August 22, 1849, when Austrians used unmanned balloons filled with explosives to attack Venice during the First Italian War of Independence. The United States first developed drones in 1959 for use by the Air Force during Vietnam. Until September 11, 2001, drones were designed exclusively for reconnaissance purposes as surveillance aircrafts. Following 9/11, drones began to be loaded with weaponry for military applications. Throughout their history, drones have always been flown for recreation by hobbyists.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is currently attempting to facilitate access to and the use of drones while still imposing some barriers. For instance, hobbyists can fly a drone for recreational purposes if they comply with basic requirements. The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 provides criteria a drone must satisfy to qualify under the Act and to be exempt from FAA rulemaking. Furthermore, since July 2014, the FAA has been granting operators commercial use exemptions for drones at a high rate.

On February 23, 2015, the FAA proposed new rules for drone flying and piloting requirements, particularly for commercial uses. It provides a comprehensive list of operational limitations that include a drone weight limit of 55 pounds, daylight-only operations, a maximum flying altitude of 500 feet above ground level, avoidance of use around people, and more. Also, the operator must keep the drone in his or her visual line-of-sight and must not be careless or reckless in operating the drone. In enacting these new rules, the FAA would require operators using drones commercially to obtain certification, but it would eliminate the long process of registering and obtaining an airworthiness certificate.

Some states have enacted strict regulations on top of the FAA requirements, hoping to get ahead of the curve in drone regulation to ensure privacy for their residents. For instance, Florida prohibits an operator from using a drone to capture images of private property or persons on such property with the intent to conduct surveillance if a reasonable expectation of privacy exists, unless the operator obtains their consent. Therefore, teams, leagues, and broadcasters must recognize that compliance with drone laws go beyond compliance with the FAA.

Teams and broadcasters have begun using drones to bring new perspectives to players and fans. For example, the Golf Channel tested a drone at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill. College teams, high schools, extreme sports athletes, Formula One, and many other entities have begun utilizing drones as well. NFL teams have also gotten in the mix, as the Cowboys, Patriots, and Giants have used drones to film practices. However, the FAA is currently investigating these teams for potential illegal use.

In order to avoid investigation, teams, leagues, and broadcasters would be wise to hire or partner with a drone operator or business that is certified and registered with the FAA to conduct commercial flights and to consult with the FAA. The FAA is ready and willing to work with teams, leagues, and broadcasters to allow the use of drones for filming sporting events, as it granted FOX Sports permission to use a drone to film this year’s U.S. Open. But again, these entities must examine local law to ensure that they are compliant.

A big concern with drone use is also fan and player safety, as the FAA encourages drone operators to not use drones around people. Drones have a short battery life and can potentially malfunction. If a drone is flying over the crowd or field and malfunctions, it can potentially fall hundreds of feet onto the fans or players, causing significant injuries to the victims. Also, drones are loud. One of the best uses for drones is in golf, but golf is a sport that requires silence.

These are just a few examples of things teams, leagues, and broadcasters should be evaluating on top of assessing relevant laws. There are a lot of issues teams, leagues, and broadcasters should consider before employing the use of drones. Drones can provide these entities with innumerable benefits. However, they must be aware that there can be unforeseen consequences when using a drone commercially, even if they are complying fully with FAA regulations.