Earlier this year, millions of sports fans witnessed some mechanical magic at the curtain riser of the Pyeongchang Winter Games courtesy of a record-setting performance by drones — 1,218 Shooting Star drones from Intel to be exact. It was a spectacle unlike no other, with a legion of quadcopters seemingly dancing in unison. It conjured images of Super Bowl LI’s halftime show, where the same type of drones formed the American flag as Lady Gaga performed a medley of her hits. These spectacles illustrate the continued diversification of the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) for entertainment purposes. Yet in sport, drones are not just part of the entertainment factor, as they are also being used as both a training tool and as part of the fan experience. This signals that drones are likely to have a major effect on sports in the future.
A Foray into Sports
The rapid advancement of drone technology can be traced through how they are being implemented in sport. A Coral report detailing the impact of technology on sport explores how some professional teams in soccer, the NFL, and rugby are now using drones to further augment their training. The unique from-above-the-action vantage point and 360-degree view offered by drones helps the coaching staff get a better understanding of player positioning and formations. Roberto Martínez, who steered Belgium to the final four of this year’s World Cup, is one of the first managers to ever use drones in this regard, employing the technology during his time with English Premier League team Everton. Eddie Jones, head coach of the England national rugby union team, has also confirmed using UAVs to prepare his squad, especially for big matches.
Drones are also being used to give sports fans a better viewing experience. Fox Sports started using drones in some of its live broadcasts back in 2016, and is currently continuing to explore how to further expand the use of UAVs in broadcasting sporting events. Other sports media outlets have followed suit. However, using drones in sports venues has proven to be a logistical challenge due to the various restrictions imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) with regards to drone usage in stadiums and arenas.
Naturally, the question now is, what’s next?
The automation of officiating has been thrown around as the next frontier for drones, with artificial intelligence (AI) potentially powering the next wave of game officials in professional leagues. In theory, having drone referees is not out of the realm of possibility given the rapid advances in software, robotics, and other related technologies, which will allow machines to process in-game information to “make decisions” the way traditional referees do. The chances of that future ever happening, though, are quite slim. Forbes contributor George Anders argues a compelling case that refereeing will never be fully automated, mainly because it is a job that necessitates unpredictable physical activities — changing viewing angles to better see a play unfold, for instance, or sprinting into position to get a call correct — that machines would find hard to emulate. Nevertheless, such a future is still on the table in light of our previous report that the U.S. military is now utilizing AI for drone operations.
One thing, though, is for certain: Drones can complement game officials by adding unique angles in video replays. Challenges will continue to be aplenty even in this case, and the biggest one, arguably, is figuring out how to use drones in such a way that they are not obtrusive to the point that they get in the way of game action.
Ironically, drones just might be the future of sports, and not for any of the reasons outlined above. The reason, instead, is the rise of professional drone sports like the Drone Racing League. Drone racing could achieve unprecedented levels of popularity and be recognized as a legitimate sport. With eSports now part of the Olympic games, it won’t be too long before drone racing is included if its profile continues to rise.
A lot can happen given how fast technology is improving, and with that being said, we promise to keep you in the loop for new developments related to the use of drones in professional sports.