Drones Moving Into The Sports World

Aerial photography is an emerging field. Some are hobbyists, some are using it to get offer a unique perspective of their real estate, and some are using it to design football plays. Wait, what?

Drones are being used more and more by the football community as an inexpensive way to see exactly what is happening on the field. The view – one that is similar to the view offered in video games so that the user can control every player – has become more and more accessible due to the rising popularity of the practice.

Colleges such as Clemson, UCLA and Oregon State are just a couple of the major Division-1 schools that are using the technology.

It’s not unusual for football teams to have a director of video operations; in fact, football practices are filmed more than any other sport due to the nature of it. Every 30 seconds, a new play is set up and executed. It’s not a fluid game like basketball, baseball or hockey. The offense determines what it wants to do and the defense has to react.

Drones are popping up at more and more practices - and even in high school football games.
Drones are popping up at more and more practices – and even in high school football games.

In the past, UCLA’s Ken Norris would be running a camera from the sideline. Sure, you can go higher up in the bleachers, but you’re still not getting a perspective like the one you can with a drone. Norris has the ability to float a drone right above the quarterback’s head, watching his progressions, seeing how the offensive line operates, etc. With all of the precision and execution required to perfect a play, this data is incredibly valuable.

Norris has been using drones at UCLA’s practices since last spring. Norris noted that having a drone sit right above the line of scrimmage is somewhere that they’ve never been able to access before. They have the ability to look at the linemen’s footwork, hand placement and schemes. It’s impossible to see these details from the sideline.

The first adopters in the sports industry were those participating in extreme sports – skateboarding, snowboarding, motocross, etc. It offered a way to view their mechanics, critique their form and improve their skills.

Now, many startup drone companies are trying to acquire football teams as a client. Michael Williams, a student at Oregon State, simply visited the Beavers’ practice and started filming. He handed the coaches a tablet computer and allowed them to watch the footage in real time.

With FAA regulations limiting drone use to less than 400 feet in the air, it is very feasible for teams to operate the system without any intervention. Don’t be surprised if we see more and more drones popping up at practices across the country.

Aerial Photography: Getting Started

So you’re looking to get started in aerial photography, but you’re unsure where to start. Well, you’ve come to the right place. This guide is going to help you go from someone who is wondering what the heck am I doing to becoming a pro quicker than you think.

We’ll go through some tips on finding the right copter for you, getting the copter off the ground, how to practice your trade and some general photography notes that you should keep in mind. Let’s get started.

Finding the right equipment

Obviously, you need to find some equipment to get yourself started. I’ve always been a huge supporter of DJI Phantoms. These quadcopters are high performance and are also very durable (something that is extremely important when you’re just starting out). 

First, you need to figure out what your purpose is for the quadcopter. Are you simply doing still photography, or do you want to capture video as well? While all of the copters listed will be capable of video, that does not mean that it will be quality video.  

Before you purchase equipment, narrow down the purpose of your photography adventures.
Before you purchase equipment, narrow down the purpose of your photography adventures.

If you’re looking to capture quality video, I must note that you’re going to have to spend around $900. I would recommend the DJI Phantom 2 with Zenmuse H3-3D gimbal. You’re also going to need a GoPro camera to go with this. If you’re looking to go a bit cheaper, you can settle for the earlier model – the H3-2D. The difference: the newer model stabilizes on three axes; the older model only stabilizes on two.

The main difference between using a copter for video versus still photography is the stabilization. Stabilizing the copter is what allows seamless video that is high quality (if you’ve practiced an adequate amount of times). Stabilizing helps prevent the copter from bouncing all over the place – even in moderate wind. 

However, if you want to really kick still photography’s butt, I would recommend the DJI Phantom 2 Vision+. This model also has 3-axis brushless gimbal and allows you to shoot DNG raw as well as integrating with your iPhone, iPad or Android device. This gives you a first-person view as well as the ability to control the camera.

If you’re looking for something a bit cheaper, I’d recommend the DJI Phantom FC40 Quadcopter. At $499, this is a quadcopter that will give you a quality flying machine that will also be able to endure your beginners crashes.


It’s smart to practice flying before you take your quadcopter outside. That’s why I would recommend buying an indoor flying machine such as the Blade Nano QX. This copter is priced at under $100 and will allow you to get a handle on just how these quadcopters maneuver. 

Although it’s some extra money to spend right off the bat, realize that flying indoors first will significantly reduce the amount of crashes you have. And when you’re dropping over $500 on a DJI Phantom, you want to keep those crashes to a minimum (no matter how durable they might be).

Notes for Photography 

When it comes to photography, there are a bunch of things to consider. This will give you a quick breakdown of different aspects of photography to get you started.

It's important to start paying attention to lighting and clarity to make your shoots look professional.
It’s important to start paying attention to lighting and clarity to make your shoots look professional.


First, you want to start with the lighting. Overcast days will provide you with a much softer light. Shooting when the sun is overhead on a clear day will provide you with a minimum amount of shadows. If you’re looking to shoot one side of an object in particular, go at a time of the day when the sun is casting light on that side of the object.


When photographing from the sky, realize that the further you elevate off the ground the further you’re moving away from the object that you’re capturing. Mist can create a very dramatic shot – or it can ruin a long-distance shot. Be mindful of how clear the air is before you go out and shoot.

Plan Your Shots

Don’t just go out there without a plan. One thing that I would recommend is doing a fly-over with your quadcopter and scoping out the area. Investigate what images you want to capture. When the copter returns, look over the film and plan out a route for you to take. Be specific. Take note of how long you want to hold shots, how close you want to get to the subject, and where you’re moving next. This way, your videos will have a distinct direction to them. 

Make sure you check back regularly. I’ll be posting more tips on how to get your aerial photography skills off the ground.