Is Using Drones At Sports Events Actually A Crime? Should It Be?

Last month, the Nationals were seen using a four-rotor drone to take publicity photos. The FAA took issue. "No, we didn't get it cleared, but we don't get our pop flies cleared either and those go higher than this thing did," a team official told the AP afterward. Which pretty neatly sums up the FAA's conundrum with regulating drones in the wild.

Using drones to shoot photos and video of sports events seems like one of the most natural applications for them. Sports are inherently visual activities, and using drones to capture new angles of everything from soccer matches to 100m sprints to snowboard halfpipes to the America's Cup is the logical extension of the tech. The problem is, like digital copyright or totemic asshole face-camera ornaments, the technology has lapped the law.

The FAA's ability to regulate drone activity is on shaky ground right now, as some recent decisions have classified model aircraft with similar capabilities to the commercial unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) as outside of the agency's scope. For the casual user, this usually isn't that big of a deal; the FAA has some simple, voluntary guidelines, like staying under 400 feet, away from airports, and within line of sight of the operator—but these date back to 1981, though they are all within the guidelines of the regular airspace designations. When pressed, aviation lawyers are pretty sure the FAA currently hasn't passed any regulations for below 700 feet. And hobbyist users are also bound by city and state laws privacy, harassment, and public nuisance laws as they pertain to drones.

Since 2007, the FAA has also claimed authority to restrict commercial UAS use, far more than other countries, which it claims to do mainly for safety:

Jim Williams, head of the FAA's drone office, said writing rules for the U.S. is more complex than other nations. The U.S. has far more air traffic than anywhere else and a greater variety of aircraft, from hot air balloons and old-fashioned barnstormers to the most sophisticated airliners and military and business jets. At low altitudes, the concern is a small drone could collide with a helicopter or small plane flown by a recreational pilot.

"It's a different culture in the U.S. and Canada," Williams said in an interview. "People believe they have the right to just jump in their airplane and fly just like they do their car. ... We can't set up a system that puts any of those folks at risk." ...

By the FAA's count, anyone who wants to use a UAS commercially can either apply for an experimental airworthiness certificate to do research or training with the drones (this is for organizations like police departments or universities), or get a limited use Certificate of Waiver or Authorization—545 of which were active as of Dec. 4, 2013. "Routine" use over highly populated areas isn't authorized in any capacity right now, though.

Is Using Drones At Sports Events Actually A Crime? Should It Be?

The decision mentioned above relates to a 2012 fine against a photographer who was using a two-winged model to take aerial photographs of the University of Virginia, which he sold to the school. The National Transportation Safety Board, which is a sort of appeals court for civil fines levied by the FAA, ruled that the FAA doesn't currently have any regulations in place to classify the photog's aircraft as a UAS, or to fine him. The FAA is appealing the decision, and the Department of Transportation is doing some saber-rattling. But the ruling mainly serves as an ultimatum that whoever's going to be in charge of this shit had better get off its ass, because the laws in place will not hold, and even when enforced to their fullest interpretation, they are basically impossible to police and pose little risk to anyone looking to break them.

This all concerns sports because of how much sense the two make together. Sports are, after all, where the GoPro is put to its most compelling uses, and some natural extensions to that, like a drone in development that would automatically follow an athlete around a course—think downhill skiing or a skate park—and while they add noise to the scene, they are still a hell of a lot quieter than putting a helicopter in the sky and less cumbersome than setting up cranes, which you'd need to do to get comparable shots. A bunch are clearly ready for use in sports, in some capacity:

The question, obviously, is how they'll hold up when rubber meets road. For sports, like other events at public venues, the issue isn't just how well it can get the shot; it's also the relative safety of paying customers on the ground. Here's an excerpt from Popular Science's interview with Ryan Baker, founder of Houston-based drone manufacturer Arch Aerial:

PS: Are there liability issues in sports? If you're a manufacturer and you send it to someone and it goes into the crowd, do you need to get waivers? Something else?

RB: It's sort of that gray area. It depends on who your lawyers are, and what your state's legal situation is. That's why I don't think it'll be adopted at NFL games—one because they already have mobile CableCams, two because nobody wants to be that organization. But I think there are other applications. It doesn't have to be a high-crowd situation. There are certainly broadcast applications that are safe.

All of which are legitimate concerns! Paying customers sliced open by a defective renegade UAS piloted by the intern some MLB office heard liked video games isn't exactly covered by the laws on the books right now. The FAA, which is inept, has been slow to introduce new, dedicated regulations on its lower troughs of airspace, and the tech-humping VC doesn't have time to wait for it. (This is why you get Larry Page on stage at Google I/O, raving about building a nerd island without any regulation, where researchers could run free and cure cancer and probably upset the Earth's core and kill us all.)

But in the meantime, drones in sports might be illegal, or they might not, but if you want to use them there's a good chance no one's going to stop you.