Drone Industry

Flying Drones for the Super Bowl: A Commercial Drone Pilot’s Experience Flying For Super Bowl LII

Flying drones for large events, such as the Super Bowl, offer many benefits to event personnel. In the 2018 Super Bowl game, we saw commercial drone pilots launching missions for security mapping, media operations, live streaming of the event (for 16 hours each day), and more. The benefits that drones brought to this event demonstrated both safety and efficiency.

Christina Martinez, CFII, Commercial Pilot and DARTdrones Flight Instructor, spoke with us about her experience flying drones for the Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Christina’s Experience Flying Drones for The Super Bowl LII

How did you get involved in flying drones for the Super Bowl?

We have always worked hard to network with our local pilot community as well as larger organizations.  Doing so has enabled us to keep up with technology and application innovations and support requests for drone services that require more pilots than our company can staff.  One of the requests we fulfilled for the super bowl was for media operations – this particular opportunity we responded to a request on a nation-wide Facebook page. When operating in locations unfamiliar, it’s often advantageous to work with local pilots who have first hand knowledge of state and local regulations, operating conditions, and know the in’s and out’s of getting around.  


Can you describe the live streaming you did?

Our mission was to stream events from drone and ground teams throughout the Minneapolis and St. Paul areas.  The events included things like pick-up ice hockey games, horse drawn carriages, sights around the Cities, and parties that the agency wanted streamed.  We used Osmos from our Inspire’s for the ground work. The drone teams were two person teams which included a pilot and VO (the VO was also a pilot in all cases).  Using the same equipment for both ground and flight teams enabled the technology and media crew to streamline operations.

We put the entire crew together in under a week and worked from two mission hubs – one for the tech team that was led by the agency and one for the drone and ground teams and their equipment.  Our project manager worked with the agency to create schedules for each of the teams that showed where each team had to be and what time they needed to be live so that at least one, sometimes two crews (for backup) would be available to livestream at any time.  It took an incredible amount of coordination, especially when considering travel time, weather, and flight restrictions.

When we put the teams together we hired pilots based on both their skills and their ability to quickly make safe, smart decisions – including calling fly/no-fly in high-pressure situations.  When a team was unable to fly, we filled some of those slots by taking the props off our drones and using them as a ground camera to film hockey games, bonfires and skiing events. We communicated via text and also an app so that when one crew landed for battery swaps or relocation, another would immediately take off.


How were you able to keep up with live streaming for 16 hours a day?

The live streaming was made difficult for a number of reasons.  For starters, operating in extreme temperatures (cold in this case) meant that our battery life was shorter, snow/visibility could ground a flight crew, and our personnel had to worry about frostbite!  Even someone holding an Osmo on the ground for 12 hours a day had difficulties in the cold weather! The next issue was keeping our batteries charged. The pilots had between 6 and 10 batteries each and would continuously charge from their cars when able on location.  The Osmo holders had it a little more difficult. They couldn’t carry charging packs, so they often ended up warming up and recharging batteries in tunnels (Minneapolis has above ground tunnels between buildings for the winters!), coffee shops, or anywhere they could find an outlet!  

We both live streamed and recorded video during the entire event.  Managing memory cards meant that every team carried multiple memory cards.  Every night after midnight each team loaded their data onto a hardrive that was then used for filler the following day.

Finally, one of our unforeseen issues was actually streaming video live.  We all quickly ran out of data on our cell phone plans and we had to start buying hot spots to stream the data.  Some locations we couldn’t get good enough cell service or internet due to the number of people in the area.


Was it difficult flying drones in Minnesota during the cold February temperatures?

We learned a LOT about flying in frigid temperatures!  Our No-Fly temperature was -6F and a few times we had to wait for it to warm up to -6 in the morning!  There are a few ways to manage the cold weather. The first is to dress your body for the weather. Multiple layers, long down jackets, insulated snow pants and boots.  Because you’re not physically moving very much, your feet and hands are the first thing that gets cold. Flip top mittens that have cut-off fingers are great – you can stuff a hand warmer in the mitten part and only expose the fingers needed for flight.  Flight mitts are also a great option, just make sure your joystick stays free and clear of any fabric!

We were required to use visual observers and only used VOs that could also fly as pilots.  That way we were able to hand the remote back and forth to take turns keeping our hands in our pockets with our hand warmers!

We know that our batteries, iPads and the plastic on the drones are susceptible to extreme temperatures. We strapped hot pads to our iPads, put hot pads in our remote mitts (a definite must to maintain dexterity while flying) and kept our drone and batteries in heated cases.  We would go through packs and packs of hot pads each day keeping our equipment as warm as possible!


Did you fly under Part 107?

We performed all our videography/live streaming under Part 107 and held local permits, and FAA airspace authorizations and night waivers.


Can you explain Crew Resource Management for this event?

It is incredibly important to have an Air Boss or project manager who understands the 107 requirements, local rules and regulations, local contacts (FAA, permitting authorities and emergency personnel), and is also incredibly organized.  One night my team was flying downtown as snow started to come in from the west. The team out west was watching the closest METAR in their area and as soon as it went below 3SM, they landed. We knew our team was next. The PM was able to coordinate with ground crews to get someone else live, and HQ filled in with previously recorded footage.  She had the west crew relocate to the North where the vis was above 3 miles while we filmed from the ground, and then had them pop back up. She had to know the city and where interesting events might be taking place, weather, 107 regulations, AND all the temporary restrictions that were in place during the event.


What types of drones did you fly for the Super Bowl LII?

We flew multiple drones based on the location, operation, and team experience.  We had a few Inspire 1s, P4Ps, and Mavics.


Were there any challenges or drawbacks while flying for the Super Bowl?

The biggest challenge was the weather.  Since we were able to work with a Minnesota based crew, we were all prepared with the appropriate gear.  We learned a lot about technology restraints, streaming live. Putting the entire operation together in a week meant that we didn’t have time to do all the planning we wanted.  Another challenge was working with the City of Minneapolis as they navigated the NFL and FAA rules and regulations. This was the first time the city created a permitting process for flying drones during large events.  As the industry grows and drones become the norm, the processes will become streamlined!


What were the main benefits drones brought to the Super Bowl?

Drones brought a unique view of the Super Bowl, especially one where the weather was so cold that people weren’t able to spend a lot of time outdoors.  We were able to showcase the “Bold North” as Minneapolis called it by filming ice houses on lakes south of the city, ice rinks, ice sculpture contests, cross country ski races and fat tire races through the woods.  


Do you think we will see drone pilot’s flying missions for the Super Bowl LIII?

There will definitely be drone pilots flying missions this year.  Drones are now expected in security, news coverage, and advertising.  Perhaps we’ll even see another drone light show in a future Super Bowl!  As technology matures and the professional pilot community grows, drones will continue to be an important part of our event experience.

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