When is a recreational activity not a recreational activity?  When it’s big business.

According to a recent article, a number of college football teams, including UCLA and Oregon State have been using drones to record practices.  While many teams employ camera’s high up in the stadium to get a better perspective on the action at practice, only a camera suspended directly above the action can give the types of views that coaches are after.

Unfortunately, the flights almost certainly violate the law.  But, you may be asking, aren’t flights permitted for recreational purposes?  Yes, but now we have entered an area that seems to confuse many people.

In order to be permissible under the FAA’s Special Rule for Model Aircraft, the flight itself has to be flown purely for hobby or recreational purposes.  Football may be a recreational activity when we play it in the back yard, but when the NCAA plays it, it is undoubtedly a commercial activity.  The sole purpose of the UAS flights are to further the teams commercial activity and improve their competitive position.  Therefore, the flights cannot fall under the model aircraft rules.

Could a university use its public use Certificate of Authorization (COA) to fly?  Probably not.  The FAA’s Office of Chief Counsel issued an opinion last month chastising universities for abusing their public COAs. The Opinion noted that university COA’s are generally limited to aeronautical research, and the act of flying a drone in furtherance of some objective other than pure UAS research and development is not aeronautical research, and not permitted.

Could a university apply for an exemption under Section 333 of the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act?  Yes, and they should do so because they would almost certainly get one.  The FAA has already stated that it is looking for operators who wish to use UASs in highly controlled environments.  Flying a UAS in an empty outdoor stadium or closed practice field, around men wearing extensive protective gear, is very similar to the Motion Picture Association’s Section 333 applications for permission to fly UASs around closed film sets.  The NCAA’s UAS operations would seem to be a natural fit with this paradigm.

Hopefully, we will start to see Section 333 applications from sports teams posted for notice and comment before football training camps get underway this summer.

(Originally posted July 15, 2014)