The Washington Redskins are grounded.
National Football League teams seeking a competitive edge are increasingly deploying small drones in practice to provide a better glimpse of action on the field. But data shows that the Redskins and some of their NFC East peers are flying the unmanned aircraft under the radar — without approval of the Federal Aviation Administration.
After inquiries last week about whether the team uses drones for competitive purposes in practice, a Redskins spokesman offered an enthusiastic response.
“We definitely do,” said Tony Wyllie, a senior vice president with the team. “It does enhance our coverage, and it’s been well-received, and it’s pretty innovative.”
By that afternoon, however, Wyllie had made an adamant reversal.
“We don’t use drones for any of our practices,” he said in a phone call to The Washington Post. “We don’t use it to gain any type of competitive advantage.”
Why the sudden change in tone? Well, perhaps the law.
The FAA stipulates that businesses cannot fly unmanned aerial vehicles without approval from the agency. As of Thursday, 733 petition waivers had been granted, according to figures available online .
But none of them belonged to the Redskins, Cowboys or any other NFL team. That means the organizations operating the devices could be slapped with charges of careless or reckless operation of an aircraft, which carry a fine of up to $25,000, according to an FAA spokesman. At this point, however, the agency is focused on getting teams to comply with the rules.
Fear of retribution hasn’t stopped the Redskins’ NFC East rivals from using the small aircraft. The Dallas Cowboys used a drone in practice as recently as the week of June 18, according to team media relations coordinator Scott Agulnek. Cowboys Coach Jason Garrett said in a recent news conference that drones can provide an unparalleled view of the field. A $1,259 model operated by some teams, the DJI Phantom 3, can soar thousands of feet and reach speeds of 35 mph.
“You see hand placement, you see where they have their feet and where they have their eyes,” Garrett said. “You can look at the players and coach them better when you’re that much closer to the action.”
But the aircraft pose safety concerns, from sliced fingers caused by contact with rotors and injuries from falling aircraft to interference with planes in the sky.
The FAA began investigating in the fall, when there were at least six drone sightings reported at NFL and major college football contests in the span of a few months. In one instance, a quadcopter buzzed into the University of Wisconsin’s 80,000-seat Camp Randall Stadium and hovered over the student section during a game against the University of Illinois.
Between June 2014 and late November, private pilots and air traffic controllers alerted the FAA to 25 incidents in which drones came within a few seconds or feet of crashing into much larger aircraft.
Accidents involving unmanned aircraft can be lethal: A 19-year-old was killed in 2013 after the remote-controlled helicopter he was flying in Brooklyn struck him and cut off the top of his head.
The FAA has been in touch with the Cowboys to explain the proper procedure for obtaining permission to use drones in practices. It also is investigating the New England Patriots and New York Giants for their use of drones.
But FAA spokesman Les Dorr said the agency hasn’t heard from the Redskins. An April video shows the view from a drone flying over a Virginia practice field as it was prepped for team workouts.
“If they’re doing it outside, and they’re doing it obviously in connection with a business, they would need some sort of FAA authorization,” Dorr said. “No one has previously informed us, that I’m aware of, that they are operating an unmanned aircraft at outside practices.”
Gregory S. McNeal, an associate professor of law and public policy at Pepperdine University whose area of focus includes drones, says the FAA’s position represents regulatory overreach.
“The risk to manned aircraft is almost nil, and the risk to padding-clad football players is similarly low,” McNeal said. “While there aren’t scientific studies to demonstrate the potential harm, I think it’s reasonable to think that a small drone could cause damage on par with that of large birds.”
McNeal said the best way to prevent collisions between drones and manned aircraft is simply to keep the drones away from controlled airspace.
The Redskins spokesman would not say who was piloting drones for the team, other than “members of the digital teams.” FAA rules require commercial drone operators to be licensed. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it doesn’t matter how low an aircraft is flying — the FAA is responsible for airspace from the ground up.
The use of drones in private indoor facilities is, however, legal.
The Redskins are lucky in one regard: The team’s Ashburn, Va., practice facility falls outside Washington’s “no drone zone,” the 15-mile radius around Reagan National Airport in which drones are strictly prohibited. It also is on the outside fringes of the five-mile radius around Dulles International Airport, where hobbyists cannot use drones without permission from an air traffic controller.
NFL teams offered muted responses last week in the aftermath of several reports highlighting their use of drones outside of FAA regulations. League spokesman Brian McCarthy said the NFL has no policy on teams using drones for practice video.
New England Patriots spokesman Stacey James did not return an e-mail seeking comment. The team has been embroiled in scandal in recent months after allegations surfaced that staff members underinflated footballs for a competitive advantage during the NFL playoffs. And an earlier video controversy, in which team staffers were found to have secretly videotaped the New York Jets’ hand signals in 2007, led to steep fines.
Giants spokesman Pat Hanlon referred a reporter to comments he made in a Bloomberg News article on the topic. He said the Giants fly a DJI Phantom 3, the camera-equipped device that weighs less than three pounds.
Wyllie said that future use of drones in Redskins practices would be for social media purposes and that the team would operate the aircraft within the law. He noted that the drones have hovered at low altitudes when operating in the past.
Still, until FAA approval is obtained, the Redskins’ drones will have to abide by a singular rule: Stay inside or stay on the ground.