The website Deadspin has a rubric called “Idiot on the Field,” under which it chronicles the antics of those cheerful inebriates who like to disrupt sporting events by unexpectedly running onto the field of play. If this past weekend is any indication, Deadspin might soon have to inaugurate a rubric called “Idiot Above the Field,” to track the increasingly common sight of people creating chaos by flying unmanned aerial systems—better known as drones—into sports stadiums. The most recent idiot-above-the-field incident happened Saturday, when a student spiced up the pregame festivities at the University of Kentucky’s home football opener by crashing a drone into the side of the press box at Commonwealth Stadium. Two days earlier, a New York City high school teacher allegedly sent a drone careening into Louis Armstrong Stadium, in Queens, where it buzzed a U.S. Open tennis match between Flavia Pennetta and Monica Niculescu before crashing into some empty seats. “I thought ‘OK, it’s a bomb,’ ” said Pennetta afterwards. No, just an idiot.
Nobody was hurt in either of these two incidents. But they were still annoying, both to the spectators who may have feared for their safety and privacy, and to the stadium and government officials who have tried and failed to prevent them from happening. The U.S. Open does not allow drones to be used on its premises. The University of Kentucky prohibits drone flights on its campus. The Federal Aviation Administration prohibits most drones from coming within three nautical miles of all NFL, Major League Baseball, and Division I college football games; the ban lasts from one hour before game time until one hour after game time. (Drones are also forbidden at certain auto races.) These bans can be even more expansive when it comes to really big games: In January, the FAA issued an edict banning drones from coming within 30 nautical miles of University of Phoenix Stadium during the Super Bowl. “Bottom line: If you want to see video of the Big Game, watch it on TV. Leave your drone at home,” the FAA said. But despite these laws and regulations, people keep launching drones into stadiums anyway, and the ease with which they continue to do so illustrates drones’ dual capacity to amaze and enrage.
It’s easy to understand why people want to send their drones into sporting events: Camera-equipped drones can capture amazing images from their aerial vantage. Indeed, it’s likely that live-action sports photography will end up helping to take drones into the mainstream. Televised football coverage, for instance, already relies on images captured by cameras suspended by wires above the field. Untethering those cameras and allowing them to follow the action from any conceivable position would give video directors myriad new camera angles from which to choose, and the ensuing broadcasts would be better for it. (And don’t get me started on the ways in which drones might revolutionize the in-stadium kiss cam.)
Drone photography has special potential in individual sports, like cycling, or skiing. A “follow me” drone can be programmed to follow an individual athlete through a course by locking onto a GPS signal transmitted by a device on the athlete’s person. Imagine a drone camera hovering, say, 10 feet in front of Lindsey Vonn, keeping pace with all of her cuts and turns as she makes her way down a slope. The footage captured from that vantage would transform the way we watched skiing.
Drone footage might also change the way that athletes and coaches prepare. As valuable as a drone-mounted ski cam might be to television viewers, it might be even more valuable to skiers themselves, who could theoretically analyze the close-up footage of their runs to make adjustments and fix problems. The technology has its uses in team sports, too. In 2014, UCLA football coach Jim Mora told ESPN that using a Phantom drone to film his team’s practices had helped him get a closer look at aspects of line play that would have otherwise gone unrecorded. “Hand placement. Foot placement. Spacing,” Mora said, presumably in the same tone and cadence with which his father said this.*
There are obstacles to the proliferation of drones, of course, and the FAA ban is chief among them. Drones are potentially distracting to fans and athletes alike, too—and not just camera drones. In October 2014, a soccer match in Belgrade, Serbia, between Serbia and Albania devolved into a stadiumwide brawl after the pitch was breached by a drone carrying an Albanian flag. And there’s always the risk that a drone will fail midflight and injure someone on the ground. It’ll only take one athlete being maimed by a drone for the devices to be banned from all sporting events.
But as the recent incidents at Commonwealth Stadium and the U.S. Open demonstrate, bans alone probably aren’t enough to stop hobbyists from operating their drones at sporting events. A stadium can theoretically render itself off limits to drones through a process called geofencing, in which drones are automatically repelled when they run up against a given location’s GPS coordinates. The problem here is one of universal compliance. Drone-makers are currently under no obligation to program their devices to avoid geofenced areas, and in the absence of a federal mandate, they never will. Last month, Sen. Charles Schumer announced his intention to sponsor a law that would require drone manufacturers to build geofencing software into their devices—but there’s a big difference between proposing a law and actually passing one, and, anyway, the law would almost certainly not affect the drones that are already out there. The FAA, for its part, seems to be in no hurry to issue its long-promised guidelines that are expected to impose a measure of order on the drone sector.
Perhaps the biggest problem, as I’ve written before, is that it’s all too easy for individuals to operate their drones in a state of supreme ignorance. Though people seeking to use a drone for commercial purposes must obtain special permission from the FAA before doing so, any mouth-breather in America can buy a drone and launch it that same day, without having to obtain a license or take a test or otherwise demonstrate his competence to do so. It’s easy to violate a rule if you don’t even know that rule exists, and since drone hobbyists aren’t required to demonstrate their knowledge of the rules—and since the relevant regulatory bodies do a pretty poor job of publicizing those rules in the first place—we can expect a continued stream of idiots who breach stadium perimeters simply because they just don’t know that they shouldn’t.
This article is part of a Future Tense series on the future of drones and is part of a larger project, supported by a grant from Omidyar Network and Humanity United, that includes a drone primer from New America. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.
*Correction, Sept. 11, 2015: This article originally misstated that current UCLA head football coach Jim L. Mora was the same Jim Mora who, in 2001, memorably disparaged the notion that the Indianapolis Colts might make the NFL playoffs. The "Playoffs?!" line was uttered by Mora's father, Jim E. Mora, who coached the Colts from 1998 through 2001. (Return.)