We wrote about drones (or, if you prefer, unmanned aircraft systems or UAS) a few weeks ago. And in line with this week’s Wait, What? Podcast, which focuses on sports technology, we decided to delve deeper into the subject matter by looking at how drones are used in sports.

In professional sports, drones have been used to shoot overhead video of Association of Surfing Professionals competitions, World Snowboarding Association events, Professional Golf Association tournaments, and many more.

In amateur athletics, the newest trend with small drones involves using them to film college and high school practices and games from overhead vantage points to supplement traditional video shot at a distance and at often-awkward angles from the sidelines or press boxes. Although cable-suspended camera systems have been widely used in stadiums as part of the broadcast of professional and NCAA Division I college football games since the mid-1990s, the use of small drones offers an option for overhead filming on any practice field and for directly-above-the-action videotaping of games by small colleges and high schools lacking fixed cable-cam systems in their stadiums.

The primary issue for high school sports programs regarding the use of small drones is whether the practice is legal – permissible under Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules, under applicable state privacy laws, and under legal mandates related to tort liability in case someone on the ground is injured by a malfunctioning UAS that falls from the sky. Most often, you’ll see sports programs using their drones much like what the FAA calls “model aircrafts.”

The criteria for a drone to be classified as a model aircraft is that it must:

  • limit its altitude to less than 400 feet above the ground;
  • be flown strictly for hobby or recreational use;
  • be operated using specified FAA safety guidelines;
  • weigh not more than 55 pounds;
  • be operated in a manner that would not interfere with any manned aircraft (making drone use illegal in Class B airspace which is that over major urban areas near the nation’s busiest airports);
  • provide notification to the airport operator and the airport air traffic control tower of any planned use of a UAS within five miles of any airport.

A ruling on March 6, 2014 by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) supports the position that the use of drones by school sports programs is “recreational use.” The case, FAA v. Pirker involved an appeal of a $10,000 fine levied by the FAA against the operator of a drone filming promotional footage for the University of Virginia over its campus. The NTSB concluded that the FAA lacked the authority to levy the fine because the drone was a Model Aircraft as defined by the FAA and the operator had satisfied all of the operating standards for such an UAS.

Congress has directed the FAA to clarify the rules governing UAS by September 30, 2015 and the safest course of action for school districts might be to delay the acquisition of drones for use by their athletics departments until those guidelines become available next year.

In addition to the federal regulatory framework for small drones, schools should consult any applicable state laws regulating UAS, most of which address the privacy implications of aerial image-capturing. For example, the Texas Privacy Act (Texas House Bill 912), signed into law on May 28, 2013, prohibits the use of drone photography without the express consent of the person who lawfully occupies or owns the real property captured in the photos or video being shot. The Texas law is typical of most state statutes governing drones in that it is intended to prevent surreptitious photography of persons on their private property, inside buildings or inside homes.

Finally, schools should exercise a high degree of care in the operation of drones to avoid common law tort liability for injuries to players, coaches, spectators or other third parties that might result from a drone crashing into a crowd.

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