by Steven Hacker | February 01, 2016

When it comes to the events industry’s role using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), more commonly known as drones, there are a lot of unanswered questions. “All of us are operating beneath a gigantic question mark,” said Jake Des Roches, product manager of e-commerce for Global Experience Specialists. “We know drones are in our industry’s future, but we’re not quite sure how they will be used.”

Anyone over age 17 can legally operate drones (under 55 pounds) recreationally, though there are some restrictions: they must be flown under 400 feet and less than 100 mph, kept away from airports, people and stadiums and remain in visual line of sight by the person operating it, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Additionally, as of December 21, 2015, new regulations require that all drone owners become registered with the FAA. Each drone will be issued a unique “tail number,” just like all fixed-wing aircraft, used immediately as identification in case of a drone-related incident.

Commercial operation of a drone requires that the owner secure an exemption under FAA Section 333, which permits their use in “low-risk, controlled environments.” The FAA does not have jurisdiction on drones flown indoors, such as at convention centers, but commercial operators such as photographers and videographers are still required to obtain the FAA exemption or have a licensed pilot operating the drone. Each venue is responsible for adopting its own use rules and so, as you might guess, rules vary greatly. Some venues do not permit any drone use at all.

The Balance of Safety & Innovation. In any discussion of the civilian use of drones, safety is always the main concern. Drone operators have already caused dozens of close encounters with commercial passenger aircraft, and drones have accidentally crashed in places where they shouldn’t have including, notably, the South Lawn of the White House and the grandstands of Louis Armstrong Stadium in New York City during the U.S. Open. Federal and state agencies rightly fear that targets like the White House could be targeted using drones laden with explosives, chemical or biological weapons.

Michael Shabun, marketing manager at DJI Technology and a thought leader in the UAS industry, predicts that a drone revolution will occur in the next six to 18 months as advancing technology reduces pilot error. New and innovative applications on the horizon include a drone app driven by radio-frequency identification that would allow race organizers to offer spectators the option of choosing a drone that would follow and video a particular runner, whose bib would be embedded with an RFID tag. The app would materially enhance the race experience and offer organizers a new revenue stream. However, safety aspects of this will undoubtedly be debated prior to its release. In December in Italy, a drone crashed just behind a competing skier during his run at a World Cup slalom event, something that could have caused serious injury.

On top of safety concerns, ethical and legal issues regarding drones have yet to be addressed, such as how to prevent invasions of privacy, spying, harassment and annoyance, each loaded with vexing challenges. There have already been instances of drones being shot down by angry homeowners.

From Wary to Wild: Organizers Weigh In. Despite the fact that things could or will go wrong, those in the meetings industry remain excited about the possibilities. In 2014, the National Automobile Dealers Association was among the first to use drone videography, producing an attendance-promotion video for its annual convention and trade show in New Orleans. “The videography company NADA had been using secured its first drone that year, and I thought it would add excitement and interest to edit in some aerial views of the show to our marketing and promotional videos,” said Stephen Pitt, the organization’s senior vice-president of conventions and exhibitions. “It was a very nice production but also very expensive due to the many hours required for personnel and editing. The cost-benefit of producing subsequent drone videos just wasn’t justifiable, and we haven’t redone it since.”

Dan Corcoran of Chicago-based Corcoran Expositions has a different take. “We had a fantastic experience with our first drone earlier this year (2015) at the Chicago Golf Show. The aerial footage allows us to demonstrate the vastness of the meeting and the size of the crowds in single shots, something we weren’t able to easily accomplish prior,” he said. “We were able to create two videos—one for exhibitors and one for a television ad. This is huge because we are competing for exhibitor dollars with other regional golf shows, and this is how we differentiate ourselves.”

Bob Kelley, a long-time service contractor executive, pointed out some of the hurdles he thinks need to be managed in regards to using drones at events. “Low ceiling heights in convention centers, typically only 30 to 40 feet, provide a very small margin of error when flying drones at exhibitions. You also (must) consider the presence of rafters, structural support beams, hanging signs, cables used to rig signs and, of course, the exhibits and attendees below. There is substantial potential liability when flying drones in tight spaces like this both during the event, when there may be thousands of people present, but also after hours. The damage that could occur to custom exhibits and product is considerable. Think also about the distraction of engine noise and lights that drones might present to exhibitors and attendees; intruding into their discussions and negotiations of high-valued commercial transactions runs counter to the fundamental purpose of exhibitions, an environment that encourages interaction between buyers and sellers.”

Randy Bauler, corporate relations and exhibits director for the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses, expressed many of the same concerns and suggested that if an exhibitor requested to use a drone, he’d take the request to the group’s Exhibitor Advisory Council for discussion. Moreover, he said, “My initial reaction and recommendation would be ‘no’ since our rules require exhibitors to remain inside the perimeter of their display. No soliciting in the aisles.”

Planners that have experimented with drones have come up with new creative avenues for events. One event organizer produced an underwater-themed party, using drones to fly fake dolphins and fish around the perimeter of the space to give attendees the feeling of being in the sea. At the North American International Auto Show in 2014, attendees who texted “Raptor,” the Ford Motor Company’s newest truck model, were delivered a model of the truck via drone. (The Detroit Fire Marshal did temporarily ground the drone to ensure that its sharp propellers were properly shielded and that its lithium polymer batteries were appropriately enclosed in the event of a crash and subsequent fire.)

And at the most recent International Consumer Electronics Show, Parrot, a wireless device manufacturer for mobile phones and a new entrant in the drone market, created a sensation when it exhibited a fleet of its MiniDrones in a caged area and presented a choreographed performance, which drew capacity crowds at each showing.

Bob James, sales communication manager at Freeman, explained how his company’s sponsorship-management tool, PlanTour, needed an update, a better way to give event planners a feel of a prospective venue. After debating the options, James chose drone video footage as a way to bring a space to life. Now many event planners are using PlanTour to help them sell valuable sponsorships by inviting prospective clients to virtually tour the venue with them and show them firsthand where they can benefit from placement and/or recognition.

It’s clear that the advancement of drone usage at events is forthcoming, though security and capabilities are still of major concern. But organizers who want to stay current and offer attendees something new and fun would do well to keep an eye on this technology as it takes off in the events industry.