Drone sports photography is on a power play

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Casual sports fans — not to mention people who couldn’t care less about the home team’s record — are invariably surprised to learn that professional and collegiate athletes lend their talents to a very high-tech business. Scientists and physicians have been pushing the boundaries of human endurance and resilience since the dawn of the modern pro sports era. As the athletic economy’s growth continues to outpace that of the broader economy, the stakes are getting higher — and the pace of innovation is accelerating.

Broadcasters and content networks are getting in on the innovative action, too. In the past few years, quadcopter drones have revolutionized sports photography and videography, bringing viewers and fans closer than ever to the action.

Drones are cheaper and more versatile than cable-suspended camera systems like SpyderCam, which remains the standard for American football photography and videography. They’re already changing racing (including downhill skiing and sprinting) broadcasts for the better. In the years to come, they’ll likely supplant cable systems in many settings as well.

Needless to say, this trend has major implications for the economics of pro sports. But it’s still in its infancy — the first inning, if you will. Here’s how drone photography could change sports in the years ahead, and what it means for fans and sports-related businesses.

Auto-Follow Means More Dynamic, Immersive Solo Sports Viewing

Back in 2014, Gizmag reported on a potential game changer for drones in sports: new technology that allows drones to automatically follow a pre-programmed target.

The technology has plenty of civilian uses, of course — you can program it to follow your dog as she fetches a stick, for instance. But it’s particularly exciting for dynamic solo sports applications, such as long-distance ski or BMX races. Early tests show that athletes don’t seem to mind being hounded at a polite distance, so long as the drone is quiet and predictable. It’s not hard to see how auto-follow drones could supplant expensive, noisy helicopters that provide wide, sweeping shots without really giving a sense of how the action unfolds up close.

Cheap Drones Mean Lower Broadcasting Costs

Though high-end drones can cost many thousands of dollars, they’re generally cheaper to operate (and certainly cheaper to purchase or lease) than helicopters. Drone pilots must be licensed, but the operational aspect is still less labor-intensive — and, isolated crashes aside, less risky — than traditional helicopter photography. Needless to say, this is welcome news for margin-challenged broadcasters worried about increased competition from lean, scrappy upstarts.

Smarter Regulations Make for Flexible, Adaptable Recording

The Federal Aviation Administration is in the process of working out new rules for drones and drone operators. It’s not yet clear how they’ll shake out, but most observers agree that it’s about to get a lot easier (and less legally ambiguous) for drone operators to ply their trade in public places. Obviously, this is a huge deal for broadcasters and subcontractors aiming to make a killing off increasingly cheap, effective drone photography. With limited restrictions on where, how and when drones can fly, they’ll enjoy tremendous flexibility, and be well positioned to deliver quality coverage.

Stadiums Get a Breather?

No bones about it: it’s fun to go to a ball game. But improved sports coverage may lessen the pressure on teams and localities (which often foot the bill for new stadiums) to keep pace in what’s become an out-of-control venue arms race. Modern football stadiums cost US$1.5-billion or more to build; new baseball stadiums aren’t much cheaper. If drones can even marginally slow the pace of new construction, they’ll protect major cities’ tax bases and reduce a key point of political friction at a time when inflamed passions and utter gridlock seem to be the political norm.

How do you feel about drones in sports photography? Are they the wave of the future, or a solution in search of a problem?

Feature image: Andrew Turner via Flickr



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