This pro football team is using drones during football games — and the drones are flying indoors, too

Drones are coming to disrupt yet another industry: pro football.

The Salina Liberty pro indoor football team based in Salina, Kansas is now playing with drones flying overhead. The drones are performing a variety of tasks, ranging from making the 35-foot ball drop to the head referee before opening kickoff, as well as capturing aerial footage of the games to livestream on the team’s Facebook page.

The drones most recently flew over Saturday’s game against the Bismarck Bucks, at the Tony’s Pizza Events Center.  The drones will fly during six home games this season.

The drones are operated by students at the Kansas State University Polytechnic Campus’s Applied Aviation Research Center.

“We see drones as a way to enhance the in-game experience for the fans, giving them a unique view of the action on the field, so we’re excited that Kansas State Polytechnic was so receptive to the idea,” said Ricky Bertz , Salina Liberty CEO and co-owner.

The concept of using an unmanned aircraft to release the game ball to the referee was inspired by one of the challenges in the NFL’s Pro Bowl Skills Showdown called drone drop.

An unmanned aircraft flown by a staff pilot from Kansas State Polytechnic’s Applied Aviation Research Center captures professional indoor football team Salina Liberty in a huddle at a game on March 3 against the Wichita Force. Courtesy Kansas State Polytechnic

The drones fly indoors, which presents some challenges in operation, such as GPS signal. But there’s good news too: flying indoors makes the drones exempt from FAA regulations. Currently, the FAA does not allow unmanned operations over a large assembly of people outdoors. Because the Salina Liberty is an indoor football team, the research center is able to fly beyond the FAA’s rules for the national airspace system.

The drone team is quick to know that, while they can skirt the FAA’s strict safety rules, they DO operate safety. They say they don’t fly over the audience and only fly drones above the field where the players are wearing protective gear and the teams, coaches and referees have knowledge of the activity, among other safety precautions.

“When we combine a strong concept of operations with numerous flights near crowds and few to no errors, we have the potential to prove to the FAA that these types of operations also can be performed safely and successfully outside,” said Travis Balthazor, flight operations manager of Kansas State Polytechnic’s Applied Aviation Research Center.

While drones may be new to use-cases like a “ball drop,” they are no stranger to football. One of the most famous drone flights was for the Super Bowl Halftime Show in 2017, when hundreds of small, colorfully lit drones flew behind Lady Gaga.

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