Drones used to capture high school football action

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The future of sports looks like a UFO, sounds like a weed trimmer and has spent this fall floating 30 feet above the grass of South Elgin High School’s football field.

The school is one of the first in the area to use a camera-equipped drone to record practices and games, providing dramatic shots of the action below. Coach Patrik Pistorio distributes the footage to players daily, saying it gives them a chance to evaluate performance and plan strategy as never before.

“With the drone, you can actually get over the top (of the play) and really see a different vantage point,” he said. “It’s much clearer. It’s everything we were looking for as a teaching tool for our kids.”

The federal government has yet to issue clear rules on the use of drones, but many sports programs aren’t waiting, sending the devices aloft to film everything from cross country to polo to golf.
South Elgin High School has been using a camera-equipped drone to record football practices and games this season. “It’s everything we were looking for as a teaching tool for our kids,” coach Patrik Pistorio said. (Terrence Antonio James, Chicago Tribune)
The gadgets aren’t always welcome in stadiums — a drone that interrupted a Serbia-Albania soccer match recently by dangling a provocative flag above the pitch caused a mini-riot — and some worry about safety and privacy concerns.

But to a generation raised on the hovering perspective of the Madden video game series, the drone’s-eye view has clear appeal.

“It helps me tremendously,” said South Elgin quarterback Hayden Nelson, 17. “It helps me read the defense and find mismatches. You can tell (how the defense is lining up), what holes are open when we run the ball.”

Advancing technology and plunging prices have allowed filmmakers to emulate Hollywood-style helicopter shots with drones, and sports have provided a natural stage. The Internet teems with aerial videos tracking rafters, bikers, surfers, skiers, triathletes and others, offering breathtaking new angles on familiar pastimes.

A few weeks ago, amateur videographer Tom Daymont sent a drone skyward to capture a cross-country invitational at St. Olaf College, a liberal arts school in Minnesota where his mother coaches the women’s team. The footage, taken about 300 feet above the course, shows the runners bunching together and stretching apart like a cell dividing in a petri dish.

“I really wanted to try to show a sport that 99.9 percent of people never get to see, and when they do see it, they’re standing on the ground as the runners fly by in about five seconds,” said Daymont, 30. “My goal was to show the scale of cross country, and I thought it would be a cool way to do that.”

His mother, Chris Daymont, said she considered the footage to be more artistic than strategic. But in football, where film study is a decadesold tradition, some coaches have found the overhead view to provide a competitive advantage.

Reuters
UCLA coach Jim Mora is one of the pioneers in college football, assigning a staff member to record practices with a drone. He told ESPN earlier this year that the videos allow him to see whether players are where they’re supposed to be on the field.

“It’s not a gimmick for us,” he said in the interview. “It’s fun. It’s cool. But at the end of the day, there’s an added value in having that contraption hovering around your field.”

Pistorio saw the ESPN report and took an immediate interest. His school had been looking to replace its end zone camera — a recording device that sits atop a tall tripod — but he decided a drone would offer more versatility at roughly half the price.

The $1,500 device South Elgin ended up buying has four rotors and a camera attached to its belly. Its battery lasts about 20 minutes, so the school also bought six $120 spares.

“We fell in love with it right away and forgot about the end zone camera after that,” Pistorio said.

Ashley Walters, 17, one of the student team managers assigned to pilot the drone, said she figured out the remote control on the first try, adjusting the drone’s position with a pair of joysticks and monitoring the video feed with an attached iPod.

“I was kind of scared to try it, but I actually found it very easy to use,” she said.

Pistorio sought the blessing of the Illinois High School Association before launching the drone during games. Craig Anderson, an IHSA assistant executive director who oversees football, found nothing in the rules to prohibit it, though he said the devices have become a hot topic among athletic administrators.

“The concern came up as to whether we should allow them,” he said. “Are there safety concerns with them? What if one, by chance, should lose its battery and dive onto the field or into the stands? Those kind of concerns are out there, but nothing out there has happened regarding rules.”

FAA lectures Chicago man who flew drone over Lollapalooza
FAA lectures Chicago man who flew drone over Lollapalooza
Mick Swasko @swasko
The Federal Aviation Administration lacks clear rules on small drones, so it treats them as model aircraft, meaning they may be flown only for “hobby or recreational purposes.” Businesses that want to use them for commercial purposes must get a waiver, and only a handful have been granted, an FAA spokesman said.

That, along with post 9/11 flight bans over NFL, Major League Baseball and major college football stadiums, has hindered drone use by professional teams and TV broadcasters, though the FAA spokesman didn’t sound crazy about high schools using them, either.

“You really should exercise judgment in flying near a crowd of people,” he said. “If something went wrong, you could conceivably be (assessed a civil penalty) for flying in a careless and reckless manner.”
Pistorio said the students are careful to launch the drone far back from the field and keep it away from spectators. If something goes wrong with the device, he said, it is designed to pilot itself back to the takeoff spot.

Metea Valley athletic director Robert Lathrop, whose school recently bought a drone, said even when the device is hovering over the field, it should pose little danger to the athletes.

“We keep the drone 10 to 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage, so even if it falls out of the sky, it won’t fall on their heads,” he said.

Any advantage gained by drone footage probably won’t last long; Pistorio and Lathrop said several other schools have inquired about the devices after seeing them in action.

Even St. Charles East High School, which declined to allow drone flights out of concern for safety and player distraction when South Elgin visited in the first week of the season, is thinking twice about the gadgets.

“There hasn’t been anything bad that’s happened, so we would definitely reevaluate it in the future,” athletic director Michael Sommerfeld said. “We’re going over (to South Elgin) week one next year, so I’ll really have a chance to take a look at it.”

jkeilman@tribune.com
Twitter @JohnKeilman
Copyright © 2014, Chicago Tribune

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