Drones come to college football

Filibuster this! It’s a good thing Mark Stoops at Kentucky wasn’t the first coach in college football to bring drones to college football considering Rand Paul represents the bluegrass state. The honor instead goes to Butch Jones who made news this week bringing a drone to football practice at Tennessee.

Jones downplayed the event calling it a mere experiment. While it may just be an expensive method of filming practice, the future of college football may indeed include a large involvement of drones.

Consider the options of using drones in a television production of a major sporting event. Isn’t an aerial drone simply the next iteration of the Skycam?

College football drones

The Skycam is a computer-operated, cable suspended camera system that has been in widespread use in major football games for over a decade. The Skycam device has been bringing overhead shots of huddles and plays through its three dimensional maneuvering system. The device weighs roughly 30 lbs typically and can travel nearly 30 miles per hour.

While NBC used a similar device as early as the 1985 Orange Bowl, Vince McMahon’s XFL league was partially responsible for bringing about the widespread use of the above field camera system. In recent years, the device has been used by all major networks for football games and even other sporting venues like the Final Four and the famous No. 17 “island green” at TPC Sawgrass.

Cable suspended cameras are so early 21st century. Enter the era of the drones.

By looks of the above Vine footage, the drone in use by the Tennessee football team looks similar to the CineStar 8 Octocopter. The CineStar drone is designed for the film industry. It’s designed to carry cameras for aerial views and angles and typically is limited to 20 minutes of flight. It appears the drone runs in the $10,000-$12,000 range.

These types of drones are already having a major impact on filmmaking. While not cheap, the devices are a bargain compared to renting a helicopter to capture the right shot, and since they’re unmanned, safety is no longer an issue.

As Outside Magazine notes, drones are already widely used in the “adventure sport” industry:

Unmanned drones, once used primarily by the U.S. Department of Defense for wartime operations, are becoming a staple in the adventure world, deployed to do everything from monitor endangered orangutans in Indonesia to aid in search-and-rescue efforts in Colorado. But they’ve become especially popular with filmmakers. This is partly because, even at upwards of $5,000 per day, a drone runs a fraction of the cost of a helicopter rental. It can also get close to athletes without propeller wash kicking up snow or dust. And since drones are unmanned, they allow filmmakers to take greater risks in pursuit of the ultimate shot. In the past few years, unmanned drones have captured innovative footage of surfers in Australia, mountain bikers in England, and skiers in Oregon.

So what does the future of football television broadcasts look like? Replacing the shot from the Goodyear blimp may be a good idea, but that’s not exactly pushing the envelope. It’s not inconceivable to consider a future where there are a number of very small camera drones buzzing around the football field capturing more and more angles never possible before.

While the Cinestar 8 is very noticeable, the drone technology being developed today is incredible. There are a number of smaller, surveillance type drones that are nearly undetectable already on the market (hence the public fear and political ramifications discussed by individuals like the previously mentioned Rand Paul).

Even more interesting, consider tiny camera drones that are programmed to follow objects like the football or a wide receiver flying down the field. Again the technology is essentially already available. Tech enthusiast and Wired editor Chris Anderson has a company called 3D Robotics which is focused on developing personal drones. His company also created a GPS-driven FollowMe which allows a drone to follow an object or person. You can see the technology demonstrated in the below video (make sure the sounds is off, the wind is annoying):

Interesting times indeed in sports and college football in particular. Butch Jones bringing the drone to football practice might just be the tip of the iceberg as new technology debuts within the big business of college football. As television broadcasts becoming an increasingly important part of the game, investment will likely pour into capabilities for producing better and more creative broadcasts. We might even see some of the things we speculate on in this article come to fruition.