Drones have complex impact on Minors

In panel at Winter Meetings, effects of unmanned aircraft explored

By Benjamin Hill / MiLB.com | December 8, 2015 10:15 AM

No one would want to attend a seminar presentation that drones on and on. On Wednesday morning, the first day of the Baseball Winter Meetings, there existed a distinct exception to this rule.

Earnell Lucas, director of security and facility operations for Minor League Baseball, delivered a presentation at the annual Bob Freitas Business Seminar entitled "The Positive and Negative Implications of Drones and Unmanned Aircraft Systems." Lucas' presentation made it clear that the commercial availability of drones has wide-ranging consequences that have affected (or will affect) all Minor League teams.

Lucas, who spent 25 years with the Milwaukee Police Department before joining the Minor League Baseball staff, spoke with a deep knowledge and quiet authority indicative of his extensive law enforcement background. He began with a brief overview of the positive and negative uses of drones in society at large. Crop dusting, firefighting and package delivery were included in the former category; security breaches, civilian safety and air traffic disruption were among the hazards in the latter.

With drones as with all else, baseball is a mirror for society at large. Lucas, assisted by three panelists and co-workers in the audience, devoted the majority of his hour-long session to the benefits and drawbacks of drone usage in Minor League Baseball.

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Unfortunately but perhaps inevitably, the negatives surrounding this issue seem to outweigh the positives. In response to increased instances of unauthorized drone use during games, Minor League Baseball created a "Drone Incursion Plan," stipulating that unauthorized drones were prohibited "on or over any ballpark and public parking lot during games," as well as one hour before and after. The plan, drafted by Minor League Baseball associate counsel Rob Fountain, further stipulated that staff members should immediately contact security personnel, who should then attempt to make contact with the drone operator.

The plan, which Fountain said was "part of a greater emphasis on improving security" at ballparks, was necessary due to the myriad risks that drones represent. These range from fan safety to player distraction to theft of the team's intellectual property rights (as in-game footage could be used as part of an unauthorized for-profit endeavor).

Jackson Generals general manager Jason Compton, one of the three panelists, shared a story of a drone-operating "genius" who parked in an emergency lane of Interstate 40 and flew a drone up and over the outfield wall of the Ballpark at Jackson. Likely a misguided hobbyist, this disruptive individual stopped filming and drove away after he realized the game had been stopped on his account.

"It was distracting the fans," said Compton. "They were looking at the red dot [of the drone] and not at the foul balls."

The "drone delay" that resulted in the above scenario is likely to grow more common, which has led Minor League Baseball Umpire Development to train umpiring crews how to deal with the situation. Panelist Darren Spagnardi, an Umpire Development supervisor, explained some of the steps that have been taken thus far.

"The umpires have to assess the situation," said Spagnardi. "We had a situation this year where the drone was over the stadium but not the playing surface, but another situation where guys were pulled off of the field."

Spagnardi said that this leads to "game concerns," as umpires need to make sure that the drone operator has desisted before resuming play. Otherwise a "circus" results, as players are pulled off and then put back on the field in response to the sporadic presence of the drone.

Increasing the turmoil is the current lack of an overarching Federal Aviation Administration policy regarding commercial drone use. Bryan Seeley, who leads Major League Baseball's Department of Investigations, remarked from the audience that there is a "lot of confusion on the federal level over how to regulate drones."

Seeley continued, "Teams should be thinking about working their contacts and pushing legislation at the state level, and talk to local law enforcement to make sure they know what laws are allowed in that particular jurisdiction."

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Amid all the justifiable concerns regarding drone usage, there are some positive implications for Minor League teams. The use of blimps and helicopters for aerial footage is prohibitively expensive at the Minor League level, but drones can obtain such footage at the fraction of the cost. This can be used to enhance the in-game experience (via projection on the videoboard) and also as a powerful marketing tool.

Bowling Green Hot Rods general manager Adam Nuse scheduled a drone flyover during a game this season, which resulted in photos that will be used in promotional items and sold in the team store. He contacted Lucas before using the drone so that they could work out the details, which included notifying the coaches and umpires of both teams as well as the on-site police officer. (The word didn't get out to the rest of the Bowling Green police force, however, who showed up at the stadium and threatened to arrest the drone operator.)

Spagnardi emphasized that such precautions are key, saying that the drone flyover should be announced over the PA and on the videoboard.

"If people are expecting it, it makes it less of a distraction," he said.

For better or for worse, this is an issue that everyone involved with game operations should be expecting. A standardized form for reporting drone incursions is currently in the works, with the data from these forms used in future policy implementation.

"One million drones will be gifted this holiday season," said Lucas. "That will only add more concerns."

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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