Jim Harbaugh was not amused by my question. He also seemed a little puzzled.
“You want to talk about drones?” asked the 49ers coach.
Yes. Specifically, I wanted to talk about drones and football.
“The only thing I know about drones,” Harbaugh said, “is that I watch the television show ‘24’ with Jack Bauer. Terrorists have the drones. And that’s not good.”
Well, no terrorists are expected to use drones in the NFL. But what about Bill Belichick?
If you’ve paid any attention to high tech news in the past year, then you know that drones are trending madly. The unmanned devices, which can be smaller than a microwave oven and fly or hover at very low altitudes, are the new go-to answer for everything. Police mount cameras on drones for surveillance. Amazon wants to equip them for product delivery. Last weekend, Oregon firefighters sent up drones to help identify trouble spots and plan strategy. A brewery in Minnesota wants to airlift beer to ice fishermen.
The world’s safest bet, then, is that the NFL soon will be buying drones and finding ways to use them — just because the NFL loves being on the cutting edge of high tech and often forges some sort of sponsorship agreement in the process.
If the 49ers and Raiders seek to go that route, they won’t need look far. The 3D Robotics group, which is pioneering the development of drones for civilian use, has a research-and-development facility in Berkeley. I spoke to one of the company’s top executives, Colin Guinn, on the telephone.
“We sell drones all day, every day,” Guinn confirmed, then warmed to the topic of how a football team might use them.
“The possibilities are many,” Guinn said. “At practice, you could have the camera follow the coach around, or a player, above and behind him so everything he sees, the camera would see.”
Yeah, yeah, yeah. But what about something more juicy? Like, say, a drone with a video camera hovering just outside a closed fenced-in NFL practice to do some spying?
“You mean from another team?” Guinn said, then paused a beat to think. “Sure, they could do it. I don’t know the ins and outs of all that. But yes, that could happen.”
It might already have happened, for all we know. Did you see that recent World Cup report from Brazil? Police were asked to investigate when a drone device with a camera hovered for a while over the French team’s training facility in Sao Paolo. The suspicion was, some opponent wanted to snoop on a practice.
“Apparently, drones are used more and more,” said the France coach, Didier Deschamps, in a television interview. “It’s very hard to fight these days.”
Alas, it turns out that this particular drone was not espionage-related. A local soccer fan and hobbyist just wanted to have fun by checking out his favorite team.
Back at the 49ers’ practice field, I told Harbaugh about the Brazil incident. And he finally grasped why I was raising the drones issue.
“We would not want them filming our practices,” Harbaugh confirmed.
Except, guess what? Right now, there’s no specific NFL rule against it.
Harbaugh said he’s never heard drones discussed at any league meeting. That’s no shock. Laws and rules have failed to keep up with drone technology, in all parts of society.
What that means: For about a thousand bucks, any football team at the pro or college (or high school!) level could buy a small drone – and then launch it for good or evil.
And if you think “evil” is off the table, you must not be a football historian. Spying on other teams—and being paranoid about it– is an NFL tradition.
Hey, we all know about the Belichick “spygate” scandal that involved New England Patriots’ staff illicitly videotaping the New York Jets’ sideline coaching signals. Back in the Raiders’ Al Davis era, former Chargers coach Harland Svare once looked up at the ceiling light fixture in the Oakland Coliseum’s visiting locker room and yelled: “Damn you, Al, I know you’re up there!” Other NFL coaches have called the FAA to check out wing numbers of suspicious small planes that fly over there practices.
The fine folks at 3D Robotics, of course, are not making their drones as eavesdropping spy devices. Their retail targets are people who are high-tech-contraption enthusiasts, or amateur photographers, or businesses who use drones to be more efficient. Football could do that, too. At last week’s mini-camp, the 49ers video cameramen were aloft in three bucket lifts on the edge of their practice fields. Why not replace them with drones for the best overhead angles?
“I’m okay with what we have now,” Harbaugh said after pondering the matter for about three seconds. “I think it doesn’t need to be fixed.”
More likely, said Guinn of the robotics company, NFL franchises will find other uses for drones – as, say, security devices over tailgate parking lots. Television networks might also buy them.
“During a game telecast,” Guinn said, “you could have live high-def camera shots from a drone instead of the Goodyear blimp.”
That sounds cool, but way too innocent. I would still keep an eye on Belichick. Maybe with a drone.
Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com