ESPN will not use drones to film the upcoming 2016 X Games in Aspen, which kick off January 28.
The International Ski Federation (FIS) announced its own drone ban in December 2015, but ESPN spokesperson Danny Chi said the network made the call internally months ago and is unrelated. After testing and using drones at some 2015 X Games events, the ESPN TV production crew decided to go without the unmanned aerial vehicles in 2016 after a big-picture evaluation of the event ops and budget.
Local law enforcement has never allowed spectators or media to fly drones at the venue due to the public safety risk and proximity of Buttermilk to the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport flight path. The ESPN TV crew went through a lengthy permitting process to gain approval for drone use at the 2015 X Games and abided by strict guidelines that proscribed usage near spectators and at the base of the mountain. A 20-year-old who flew a drone at a bus stop near the venue last year was issued a summons for reckless endangerment.
FIS slapped its ban on drones at World Cup races the day after a broadcast camera-carrying UAV nearly struck Austrian skier Marcel Hirscher during a slalom in Italy. The 22-pound drone crashed just behind the four-time overall World Cup champ, who continued on unhurt to finish second behind Norwegian Henrik Kristoffersen.
"I didn't know what it was, but I felt something. I thought it was a course worker behind me, or a gate," Herscher said. He later blogged, "Quite honestly, if I look at the pictures from the drone crash on the internet, I get sweaty palms and tremble."
FIS Men's Chief Race Director Markus Walder told the Associated Press that the ban will remain "as long as I am responsible… because [drones] are a bad thing for safety… It was huge luck that Marcel was not hurt. I am very angry."
Infront Sports & Media, the Swiss sports marketing agency that employed a third party service to pilot the drone at the race, said in a press release that it is still examining the crash, which was likely caused by "a strong and unforeseen interference on the operating frequency, leading to limited operability." To prevent loss of control over the done, its pilot reportedly drove it into the ground, in order to destroy it. Though FIS officials granted Infront permission to use the drone, they also provided instructions to not fly over the course and to lag 50 feet behind the racer, providing a margin of safety.
"There are a lot of cool things nowadays," Hirscher said. "But you have to guarantee the safety—and that was just insane."