DeAndre Hopkins uses drones to push his ceiling higher

Drones help Hopkins master his route-running, even if he's practicing on his own in the off-season.
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Drones are among the hottest gadgets in tech, making their way from trade shows to big-box stores in record time. As prices have dropped, more and more hobbyists are flying quad-copters around, getting a birds-eye view of the world around them.

For Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins, drones looked like an opportunity to improve. It’s difficult enough to get better when you’re as good as Hopkins, but being a top-shelf wide receiver means seeing opposing defenses bend and scheme in order to slow you down. The old maxim that football is a game of inches applies to receivers as much as any other position, especially when it comes to route running. A lazy first step on an out-route can result in an incompletion, and a poorly run slant can easily turn into an interception. Hopkins entered the 2016 off-season looking to discipline his routes even more, which meant seeing them from a different angle—above.

During his solo workouts before training camp, Hopkins used a 3DR Solo autonomous drone trained on him from above. The drone uses a “set and forget” approach—rather than needing an entire video team, like many pro teams employ, Hopkins can have the drone follow him automatically. That allows him to run a series of routes without stopping to play with the controls.

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From above, the drone captures footage from an angle akin to a video game. Hopkins is able to review footage to see if he is tipping his routes—alerting the opposing cornerback that he is planning on going a certain direction—and work on his timing and planting. From a typical sideline view, depth perception might not show the tiny mistakes that Hopkins can eliminate from his game to make him even more devastating.

Hopkins also flies the drone over the end zone as he practices his corner catches. The 50/50 ball in the corner of the end zone is crucial for big receivers like Hopkins, but it is a precision-dependent play where everything needs to go right. Hopkins has to make his first break right near the goal line, gain space from the defender, turn and jump at the exact right time in order to haul in the floating pass and, most importantly, ensure both of his feet land in-bounds. The best way to see all of those different touch points in one fell swoop? Overhead.

As drones become easier to use and more affordable, it won’t only be pros checking their footwork from the sky. Youth leagues, high school and college teams will join in on the aerial acrobatics, and with autonomous drones like 3DRs, they won’t need to hire special technicians to help out. Football in its present form is all about airing it out, but the future of practice may fly in the sky as well.