Implications of Increased Drone Operation Around Stadiums

Aug 16, 2019

By John E. Tyrrell; Patrick J. McStravick and Kelly J. Woy, of Ricci Tyrrell Johnson & Grey
Over the last five years, there has been a considerable amount of growth in the operation of drones—referred to as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS)—in both the United States and abroad. While the use of drones may provide benefits and opportunities—from commercial to artistic to recreational—it also comes with complications and concerns, such as those related to privacy and security. One of the concerns related to the increase in drone use is the disruption and potential threats posed by drones flying in or near stadiums.
According to data collected by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which regulates the operation of UAS in the United States, as of September 2018, more than 900,000 recreational/hobby UAS owners had been registered with the FAA since registration began in 2015, and monthly owner registration averaged around 8,000-9,000 during January to December 2018, with some peaks during the holiday season and summer. The FAA predicted, based on the number of recreational/hobby drone operators registered as of December 31, 2018, there are around 1.25 million drones being operated as model aircraft.
Unlike the rules for recreational/hobby drone operator registration, rules for commercial/non-hobby registration require owners to register each UAS. According to the FAA, for the calendar year 2018, more than 175,000 commercial/non-hobby owners/operators registered their equipment, and the pace of monthly registration, almost 15,000, is nearly 3-times higher than the pace at which commercial aircraft owners registered their craft during the same time last year. By the end of 2018, there were more than 277,000 commercial/non-hobby aircraft registered since registration opened.[5]
The increase in number of drone registrants has led to an increase in concerns and issues related to unauthorized drone operation.
Federal Regulation of Drones
The FAA defines a UAS as “an aircraft that is operated without the possibility of direct human intervention from within or on the aircraft”. A small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) is an unmanned aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds at takeoff. 14 CFR part 107.3. The FAA regulates the operation of UAS under 14 CFR part 107, which sets forth requirements for certification, registration and operation of UAS. The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 (Pub. L. 115-254) provides limited conditions to operation of recreational UAS without requirements for FAA certification or operating authority. Both recreational and commercial operators of sUAS are required to register with the FAA, and the assigned FAA identification number must be placed on the exterior of the drone for identification purposes. There are also state specific laws related to drone use.
As necessary, the FAA promulgates Airspace Restrictions that apply to the operation of UAS across the board, regardless of the category or size of the UAS. One of the Airspace Restrictions set forth by the FAA is related to stadiums and sporting events. Per the restriction, drone operators are prohibited from flying drones in and around stadiums starting one hour before and ending one hour after the scheduled time of a Major League Baseball game, a National Football League game, a NCAA Division One Football game, and/or a NASCAR Sprint Cup, Indy Car, and Champ Series race. [6]. UAS operations are prohibited within a radius of “three nautical miles” of the stadium or venue during the designated time period.
Drone Disruption of Sporting Events
The FAA restriction to UAS operation during certain sporting events has not stopped reported disturbances caused by drones being flown over stadiums during college and professional games, both domestically and abroad.
The following is a non-exhaustive list of drone disturbances that have taken place over the last five years in the United States:
As early as August 2014, a drone with a camera attached to it flew over Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina during an exhibition game between the Carolina Panthers and Kansas City Chiefs. [7]
In September 2014, a University of Texas student was detained after flying his drone over Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium during the home opener for the Texas Longhorns football team.[8]
In June 2015, a man was caught flying a drone during a Phillies game at Citizens Bank Park in South Philadelphia.[9]
In October 2017, a drone was spotted flying over CU Boulder’s Folsom Field during a football game against Arizona.[10]
In February 2017, a drone was grounded near the stadium at Rice University, where the Atlanta Falcons were practicing for Super Bowl LI.[11]
In November 2017, a male drone operator flew over Levi’s Stadium in San Francisco during a football game between the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks. While over the stadium, anti-media propaganda was dropped from the drone, but the flyers were blown out of the stadium and did not disrupt the game. Subsequently, the same man flew the drone over a Oakland Raiders versus Denver Broncos game.[12]
In April of this year, a drone flew over Fenway Park in Boston during a Red Sox versus Blue Jays baseball game for almost an hour, not going unnoticed by players, according to Red Sox first baseman Mitch Moreland.[13]
Drone sightings and disturbances have also taken place at sporting events abroad. In January of last year, a drone that was being flown over Huish Park Stadium in Yeovil, Somerset, England caused an eleven-minute delay during a Sky Bet League Two soccer match between Crawley Town and Yeovil Town. Upon sighting the drone, per protocol, the referee took the teams off of the field for safety reasons in the 80th minute. Once the game resumed after ten minutes in the locker room, Crawley scored the winning goal in the 87th minute. The Crawley manager, Harry Kewell, was quoted saying that the drone delay probably worked to the team’s advantage, to give his players a break and allow him to talk to the team.[14]
There have also been drone incidents at stadiums that have had the potential to lead to injuries to players or patrons. For example, in June 2014, a drone crashed into the roof of AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The operator was fined $1,000 by the FAA for violating several of its Regulations.[15] 
Additionally, in September 2015, a drone crashed into a seating area at Louis Armstrong Stadium during a U.S. Open tennis match. The match paused briefly, but no one was hurt. One of the players on the court at the time, Flavia Pennetta of Italy (who was playing against Monica Niculescu of Romania) was quoted saying that she heard the drone fly by, and was scared by it, thinking it might be a bomb. The drone operator was arrested on charges of reckless endangerment, reckless operation of a drone, and operating a drone in a New York City public park outside of prescribed area, according to the NYPD. Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown was quoted saying that the incident “clearly illustrates that drones cannot simply be considered children’s toys,” and that “[t]hose who engage in conduct of this nature will be held legally accountable for their actions . . . They will not be treated as children — or as innocent hobbyists.”[16] 
Later that same week, a University of Kentucky student’s drone crashed into the university’s Commonwealth Stadium prior to the Wildcats’ game against Louisiana-Lafayette in the season opener.[17] In May 2017, an illegal GoPro Karma drone flew over the San Diego Padres versus Arizona Diamondbacks game at Petco Park in San Diego, California. The Karma drone narrowly missed hitting a few fans in the seventh inning before crashing into the back railing of Petco Park’s upper deck.[18]
Abroad, in February 2018, a drone crashed into the turf and broke into several pieces midway through the second half of a soccer game between Zenit St. Petersburg and Spartak Moscow in St. Petersburg Stadium, fortunately not hitting any players.[19]
Future Considerations
Under federal law, it is illegal to sabotage a drone in flight, due to their classification as aircraft, 18 U.S.C. § 32(a); 
Technology is being researched and developed which is designed to detect the presence of a UAS; 
The FAA may become more active with additional regulations to address the security and safety concerns created by unauthorized drones around stadiums; 
The Department of Homeland Security could eventually get involved to address these issues; and 
Increased state and local regulation is likely, as is continued prosecution of state and local law.
John E. Tyrrell is a founding Member of Ricci Tyrrell Johnson & Grey. He has decades of experience in representation of operators and managers of stadiums, arenas, entertainment venues and recreational facilities, including professional and collegiate sports teams, concert promoters, golf courses, ice rinks, gymnastics facilities, rowing associations, and paintball facilities.
Patrick J. McStravick is a Member at Ricci Tyrrell Johnson & Grey who specializes in defending lawsuits alleging liability associated with the operation of sports and entertainment venues and recreational facilities.
Kelly J. Woy is an Associate at Ricci Tyrrell Johnson & Grey who works within the Sports, Event and Recreational Liability practice group.


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