The FAA has approved the NFL's request to use drones, making it the first major American sports league allowed to fly them. The league's interest in drones has to do with its feted video production unit, NFL Films — it wants to use drones to capture aerial imagery instead of crewed aircraft. It's allowed to do that now, but the exemption does include one important limitation: the league can only use drones to film empty stadiums. That means swooping, expansive drone-driven shots of frenzied fans and game-winning touchdowns are off-limits for the time being.
The NFL might be at the vanguard of drone usage for sports leagues, but it's just one small part of a massive wave of commercial drone approval that's crested this year. The commercial drone field was a near-lawless territory until the beginning of this year, when the FAA started approving exemptions for commercial use as long as operators had a pilot's license. (That includes licenses you can earn by learning how to fly giant hot-air balloons.) The result has been a huge increase in the number of companies approved to fly drones in the US, with hundreds being approved each week and a large backlog left for the FAA to work through. To the FAA, granting an exemption to the NFL is "in the public interest": drones are cheaper and safer than the crewed aircraft used for the same purpose because they don't carry passengers or flammable fuel.
The FAA and law enforcement are still figuring out how to police drones
With that said, the kind of drones the NFL will use have been involved in some high-profile accidents this year, one of which involved a sporting event. A recreational pilot crashed his DJI Phantom into the White House's lawn in January, throwing the Secret Service into full threat-assessment mode; just a few weeks ago, a US Open tennis match involving eventual winner Flavia Pennetta was interrupted by a drone crash in the stands, one that led to an arrest. The NFL won't be flying anywhere near fans, so there's no chance of something like that happening at a game in the near future. But it's clear that the FAA and law enforcement are still figuring out how to properly police a sky increasingly full of both commercial and civilian drones.
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