A Peek Into The Future

Drones will change the way we watch sports

August 15, 2017

Personal camera drones might be just a fad. They can annoy people, and, to be honest, though I once worked for a drone company, they sometimes freak me out. They look somehow like a living creature watching me with alien eye. But over the next few years, they’re going to become quiet, small, safe, and almost effortless to fly, and they’ll change the way sports are covered: We’ll experience them better.

Some things you can’t describe, so here’s a pretty solid video of a drone flying through fireworks. This gives you not just a different way of seeing it, but a different way to experience it. (The stunning visuals are exceeded in quality only by the fresh soundtrack that is your guide through them.)

Changing the way we watch sports

Drones are perfect action cameras. Like the athletes they film, they defy physical limitations. They move like Hollywood camera rigs but are more flexible and spontaneous. Think of them not as action cameras, really, but as athletic cameras. They can film pretty much anywhere: clinging to a sheer cliff face; over open water; behind a dirtbike going 60; even in the middle of fireworks. Drones mimic the way we move—they can even follow you, hands-free—and by doing that they go one step beyond the sports coverage we’re used to: they convey not just the visuals, but the feeling.

Related: The best drones in golf

This will change the way we watch sports. For instance, I don’t remember the first time I saw a BMX double backflip — the YouTube clips fuse into one — but I remember the first time I saw it through a GoPro. Even though I’d never jumped a BMX, I felt, or imagined I did, what the rider pulling the trick felt.

This is because the thrills of action sports—sports in general, really—come from their extreme physical challenges: speed, height, strength, distance, and terrain. Static or handheld cameras can’t keep up, and most professional camera rigs can’t quite communicate the spontaneity of sport. Drones excel at this stuff—they can capture spontaneous movement and do best with extreme speeds, heights and distances. (For an idea of what I mean, think of the NFL’s Cablecam.)

That’s what a fireworks display feels like. In other words, with a drone, the shots can have the same spirit as the subject.

And now: I’ll elaborate.

Surfing, for instance: I like surfing, but I’m not an enthusiast and don’t especially like watching it. One reason that sport hasn’t broken into more mainstream broadcasts, aside from all the downtime, is that it’s pretty hard, visually, to get the right feel. It’s been tough to get a camera out over the water that, unlike a helicopter, can track exactly (and safely) with a surfer’s every move.

You probably want another visual aide here, so here’s an edit of action sports drone footage featuring surf shots. Again, you’re probably going to mute your speakers at some point. (Almost all drone footage online is for some reason completely unlistenable.)

Even golf has its physical extremes of distance and accuracy. A helicopter—which costs who knows how much to rent—can give you a sense of the course, but here’s an interactive 18-hole aerial tour where the drone more or less tracks with each individual shot. Or with what your shot’s supposed to be.

Football coaches realized the value of an aerial perspective long ago, installing cameras on top of broadcast booths to record practice and games. Those are static views, though, and can only show so much. Drones move in three dimensions and can spontaneously react to plays in real time, the way a Cablecam does in a game, except cheaper. The NFL has permission to use drones in practices, including the Patriots—and Bill Belichick is licking his chops in anticipation of Skygate.

The Overview Effect

Part of the human athletic experience we rarely, if ever think about: Gravity. We fight it with it with every step. Drones let us experience a birds-eye view, which isn’t as cliche as it first sounds. They show us what it’s like to see our world as a bird sees it. That is, with drones we’re trying to use technology to recreate or approximate a natural thing, to create a sort of portal so we can re-enter nature—not to defy it, or distance ourselves from it and escape it, as all those electronics and circuits and dubstep might suggest.

Let’s blow it out a bit.

Astronauts say they experience a shift in awareness when they see the Earth from space: the entire planet, a fragile blue dot suspended in isolation. They swim in empathy for the planet, and, with all borders and boundaries removed, feel a yearning for peace and cooperation among all people. They say the feeling never leaves them.

This is known as “the overview effect.” Drones will let us experience it. The scale is obviously magnitudes smaller but the principle is the same. For now we say “Whoa, look up there,” or, “man that thing is annoying,” but the really interesting thing is what happens after you get past that part, and you look back down.

Want to get a drone? If you don’t have experience flying and aren’t rich, you probably ought to start with something cheap to learn on. Crashing a drone is like dropping your smartphone from 100 feet. But most drones in the $1000 range have special sensors that prevent most crashes, so these days you might even want to make the leap. You can fly them legally, except in certain restricted places such as near airports and in national parks (because some assholes were flying them in the faces of mountain goats), and if you’re flying them to make money you’ll need a special permit from the FAA. Other than that, you’re good. If you want a new way to see yourself or your sport, they’re at least worth checking out.

I mean, even curling can look cool.


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