NFL Wins FAA Approval to Use Drones, Just Not on Game Days

The NFL becomes first major sports league granted permission to fly drones; rules prohibit filming over stadiums packed with fans.

NEW YORK – The National Football League has received permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly drones to shoot films, documentaries and television segments. With the approval, the NFL is now the first major sports league that can legally fly drones.

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However, don’t expect to view live, overhead game action anytime soon. The FAA exemption allows NFL Films to operate drones only over empty stadiums, precluding their use on game days when the stands are packed with fans.

The decision comes three months after the FAA said it was probing NFL teams, including the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants, for their use of drones. It’s illegal to fly unmanned aircraft for any commercial purpose without first receiving federal permission.

In a Sept. 17 letter, the FAA granted the league’s NFL Films permission to use drones but with several conditions and limitations. Among them: Drones must weigh less than 55 pounds including payload, fly no more than 400 feet above the ground and travel no faster than 100 miles per hour.

The FAA explained in the letter that it’s safer for the NFL to use drones for filming rather than using piloted aircraft. Because drones don’t carry passengers and “flammable fuel,” there’s less chance of a major catastrophe.

Like other companies that have won FAA approval to use drones, the NFL must adhere to a list of operational guidelines. For example, drones must not be larger than 55 pounds, they can’t fly higher than 400 feet, and they must stay in the line of sight of operators at all times.

The NFL is the latest business to successfully petition the FAA for the commercial use of flying drones. The FAA has so far issued over 1,400 drone permits to U.S.-based businesses, including real estate firms, insurance companies, and Hollywood film studios. Earlier this month, a small drone startup called Measure won FAA approval to fly a fleet of 324 drones to collect data.

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