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SOU football team has an eye in the sky

As the Southern Oregon University football team’s starting offense huddles behind the line of scrimmage, defensive backs coach Nathan Chin hustles off the practice field toward a white shade canopy erected on the sideline.

There, sitting on the grass next to the team’s cranked-up stereo, is Chin’s target. Shaped like a chubby X, with a rotor blade at the end of each arm, it has a glossy white plastic shell and four red stripes on two of the arms. Chin picks up the remote control sitting close by, taps away at the attached iPhone for a minute, thumbs the controller’s knobs and stands back as the quad-copter drone whirs to life.

No, Chin’s not taking a break from Thursday’s football practice to play with his new tech toy. He’s working.

Soon, the DJI Phantom 2, no bigger than a truck’s hubcap, is hovering about 20 feet behind and 60 feet above SOU All-American quarterback Austin Dodge as he takes a snap from center Ronald Rylance. Attached to the Phantom’s belly is a GoPro camera, which records the Raiders in high definition as they prepare for their Aug. 30 season opener against Menlo College.

“That was my second time (flying the drone), so that tells you how hard it is,” Chin said after landing the Phantom. “Once you figure out the controllers, it’s not too bad. And you can see what you’re filming on the iPhone.”

The Phantom is SOU’s latest attempt to gain an edge on opponents while also addressing a safety issue that has plagued college football programs for decades. The traditional method of filming football practice is to place a camera operator on a hydraulic scissor lift that’s set off to the side and raise it as high as it can go –about 50 to 60 feet. But in order to capture every player on the field, SOU has used two lifts from front and side angles, then spliced the films together for study. It’s an arduous process that has risks.

In 2010, a student filming a Notre Dame football practice died when the lift he was perched on fell over, pushed by a gust of wind.

SOU head coach Craig Howard considered upgrading to a SkyHawk, basically a remote-control camera mounted on a pole that can be raised and lowered as needed. But the SkyHawk system costs about $5,200, a hefty bill for a small-college football program.

Then Howard and offensive line coach Chris Fisk, while perusing coaching websites, stumbled across an article about UCLA, which was using a drone to film its spring practices. Intrigued, Fisk tracked down a member of the Bruins’ coaching staff to get the lowdown.

Do you need a special license to fly it? No. Is it easy to learn? Yes. How’s the video? Spectacular.

Then Fisk researched the cost of a drone and was stunned. For $1,200, the Raiders could get their hands on a drone, three battery packs and a case.

“To think that I could buy five drones for the price of one SkyHawk made it kind of a no-brainer for us,” Fisk said.

“I can’t believe that it was so inexpensive,” Howard said. “And the video you get from it is unbelievable. It’s the best I’ve ever seen because the angle you get you can see all the players. It’s like coaching on a video game.”

The Phantom arrived in the mail last week Monday. The Raiders tweeted a picture of their new coaching tool, then almost immediately put it to work. So far, there has been no buyer’s remorse, though there are a few catches.

For one, each battery only powers the drone for about 30 minutes, so coaches must be somewhat selective with what they chose to film. Secondly, the Federal Aviation Administration has restrictions regarding model aircraft, though none that are expected to limit SOU. According to the FAA Advisory Circular 91-57, available at faa.gov, a “model aircraft” must not fly higher than 400 feet. According to Fisk, the Raiders have yet to fly their drone above 75 feet.

Since there’s virtually no limit to the drone’s placement, the SOU coaching staff is experimenting with what angles work best. Less than a week in, Fisk says they’ve already discovered some fantastic ways to take advantage of its mobility.

During special teams practice, for instance, Fisk was able to fly the drone behind the ball after it was kicked and capture each player’s blocking technique, angles taken by the kickoff team, the returner’s options, everything. It was a vantage point that was previously impossible without an Xbox and a copy of the latest John Madden Football video game.

“It’s a game-changer,” Fisk said. “The film is so good, it’s going to be hard watching film from normal cameras again. … You can see the steps, hand placement, the tilt of their helmets. You can see where they’re looking. I don’t think we’ve fully tapped into what we’re going to be able to do with it.”

Fisk believes it's only a matter of time before drones corner the practice film market. As if to prove his point, NFL scouts from the Miami Dolphins and Houston Texans showed up at Raider practices last week to evaluate Dodge, and both saw the drone at work, were impressed, and said that they would take the idea back to their bosses. 

And really, who could watch a quadcopter zoom across the sky and resist the urge to grab the remote and take it for a ride?

"You remember what it's like to be a kid again," Fisk said, chuckling, "because it's like a remote-control car, but on steroids."

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or jzavala@dailytidings.com.

A drone hovers over a Southern Oregon University football practice on Thursday. Daily Tidings / Jamie Lusch