As its embrace of exceedingly questionable rule alterations in recent seasons reflects, Major League Baseball is no longer the change-averse organization it once was. Now the MLB has shown it’s ready to innovate with TV coverage of the game, too, by featuring video feeds from a DJI drone during a college tournament this weekend.
In a sign that America’s favorite pastime is not buying into the anti-China sentiments roiling the nation’s capital – and driving bans on Chinese-built drones – MLB deployed a DJI Inspire II over certain action during the “MLB4” collegiate baseball tournament in Scottsdale, Arizona. In addition to overflights to capture the full expanse of the field and stadium, plans also called for the UAV to follow batters circling the bags after dingers, and accompanying pitchers on their commutes between dugouts and the mound. Other potential situations were aerial shots of relievers trotting in from the bullpen, and stop-time scenarios (though, presumably, not infuriated protests of blown umpire calls).
MLB’s DJI-delivered drone shots were to be featured at a pair of games between UC Berkeley and the University of Houston, and Texas Christian University versus San Diego State at the Salt River Fields – the shared Spring Training home of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies.
The DJI Inspire II was supplied with a Zenmuse X7 gimbal by Las Vegas-based drone company JibTek. The craft was operated by a single pilot backed up by a spotter, and preparations for adding the aerial coverage began a full six weeks before tournament. In addition to taking shots of the interior of the park and areas outside during breaks in play, the UAV had been trialed for safe deployment around the yard without creating risks to people below.
Up until now, most drone use in baseball coverage has involved relatively high and remote shots of broad areas, much like last year’s Field of Dreams game – essentially pastoral images during pauses. But the MLB says its deployment of the DJI Inspire II sought to bring drones much closer to the actual action, players, and baseball that fans can never get enough of.
“Our plan is to do more than just get beauty shots,” Chris Pfeiffer, senior coordinating producer, live events, MLB Network, told Sports Video Group News on the eve of the tournament. “That’ll be part of the plan, but the main reason we are out here is to use (the drone) to help in coverage of a baseball game. If there’s a home run, that drone is leaving its perch and following the batter around the bases. It will be over the field during action. We’ll be getting really cool shots while it’s out there… I’m not sure you’ve seen anything like that in a baseball game. We are really excited for this.”
For now only subscribers of MLB.tv who tuned in can say how DJI drones performed in baseball’s maiden flight of drones over play (although their ability to capture astonishing footage during workouts had already been proven by the stunning piloting of Jay Christensen’s Jaybyrdfilms).
What is known, however, is just as Baseball Inc. opened the skies above Salt River Fields to UAVs, it closed the clubhouses to its teams for at least a week. The same day DJI and its drone took coverage of the sport several yards above the diamond, the MLB announced it had pushed back the start of Spring Training for a week – at least – as its labor dispute and lockout of players continued with no end in sight.