UCLA Football Uses A Drone at Practice, And Your Team Could Someday, Too

UCLA head coach Jim Mora, left, talks with an NFL scout from the Nashville Titans during UCLA pro day at Spaulding Field on Tuesday, March 11, 2014, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)
UCLA head coach Jim Mora, left.

The UCLA football team is using a non-military drone to observe practice drills and gather data, and the use of drones in other sports is skewing the practice toward the mainstream despite potential legal issues , according to an ESPN Outside the Lines report.

The U.S. Polo Association, Formula One Racing, and assorted high school football teams are using drones to take video and track various aspects of performance. At UCLA, the drone tracks the daily minutiae of Bruins players as they sweat and grunt on the practice field. From the ESPN story:

"Hand placement. Foot placement. Spacing," said head football coach Jim Mora. "When it hovers above the line of scrimmage, you can get a real clear perspective of spacing between your offensive linemen, or differences in depth of the rush lanes of your defensive linemen."

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The legality of using drones to track football players from above is an ongoing battle. Without specific laws banning the practice, many organizations are going ahead with it. UCLA’s video coordinator, Ken Norris, is the team’s official drone pilot. He has no special qualifications or licenses to operate the drone. An FAA spokeseman told ESPN it was working with “a few distinct industries” to come up with regulations for flying drones, and that while sports are not yet one of those industries, the FAA “would welcome” the chance to work with the industry.

Polo, a sport that traces its roots to 600 B.C., would seem like an odd choice to adapt the new technology, but with players competing over a space of about 10 acres, the USPA uses drones to train its officials.

"We talk about positioning and you tell [umpires], 'You've got to get close. You've got to get more on the right side. You've got to get more on the left side,' and they kind of go, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah,'" Charles Muldoon, head of the USPA's association of umpires, said. "Then the umpires see the drone footage that shows them out of position, and they're going, 'Oh my god.' And it's changed them for the better."

In addition to the legal concerns, there are safety concerns to consider, such as the skill level of the pilot operating the machines so close to human beings. In February, the NFL denied a request by a media outlet to fly a drone outside the Super Bowl for crowd shots, according to ESPN. There’s also the potential issue of nefarious uses, of bringing Bill Belichick’s Spygate controversy into a new era. Asked whether he’d be tempted to use his team’s drone to spy on a rival team, UCLA’s Mora said, “Nah, we’re not going to do that. We’re going to play by the rules.”