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Can Regulation of Drones Stop Interference with Sports Events?

4 Nov, 2015

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

When a drone aircraft flew into the grounds of the U.S. Open in early September and crashed in the stands, it did a lot more than startle spectators and interrupt a tennis match between Italy's Flavia Pennetta and Romania's Monica Niculescu. It highlighted the need for tighter controls on who should be able to operate an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV in tech parlance) and whether there should be any training for them.

And now, less than two months later, it looks like that need is about to be filled. The U.S. Department of Transportation has announced the creation of a task force to develop recommendations for a drone operator registration process that will be due by Nov. 20. The developing story, which was carried by FierceMobileIT, included the information that the task force will be composed of 25 to 30 representatives from the drone and manned aviation industries, the federal government and other stakeholders.

The goal of the task force is to explore options for a streamlined system that would make registration less burdensome for commercial drone operators and would recommend which aircraft should be exempt from registration due to a low safety risk.

The problem, say many, is what constitutes a “low safety risk?” The drone that crashed into Armstrong  Stadium, for example, wasn’t huge and didn’t cause damage to the stadium, but it was terrifying to the players, as well as to spectators.

"I feared the drone was a bomb," Pennetta told www.tennisworlditalia.com. "With all the news out there, I thought it was over. My team was so scared."

It wasn’t the first time a UAV had disrupted a sports event. In October of 2014, a soccer match between Serbia and Albania had to be stopped after a drone carrying an Albanian flag flew over the match. It led to fights in the stands and to players stopping to pull the drone out of the air. CNN noted that Albanian players ran from the field, while a number of missiles and flares were thrown from the stands by some home supporters. Images from photo agencies showed fans had run onto the field.

Of course, athletes could always have the response to a drone that this youth soccer player did. Nice kick, kid!

Properly used, drones can be advantageous to sports events, and can follow athletes to provide great sightlines. The use of drones in the Winter Olympics ski events was an outstanding example.

Tighter regulation of drones has been a concern of sports event organizers, coaches and others, who fear UAVs could be used for spying on opposing teams.

In the case of the U.S. Open incident, a 26-year-old New York Department of Education employee was arrested for flying the drone into Armstrong Stadium; however, because UAVs generally can be purchased and flown without paperwork, they are not easily traced.

In making the announcement about the task force, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said that registration will help improve enforcement by giving the FAA information on the identity of operators who operate their drones unsafely.

"If unmanned aircraft operators break the rules, clearly there should be consequences but in fact there can be no accountability of the person breaking the rules can't be identified. Registration will now allow us to identify them," Foxx told a press conference in Washington, D.C.

Some sports events already are marketed as “no-drone-zones.” The 2015 Super Bowl was a high-profile example, but then, so was the U.S. Open. One site, Mother Jones, has created a map showing where drone use is illegal. It is worth noting drone use is illegal at most ski resorts.

Those who are pushing for tighter regulation of drones say they are not trying to squelch the abilities of photographers, journalists or hobbyists. What they’re doing, they say, is trying to establish a level of responsibility that must be adhered to. In other words, it’s not enough to buy it; it’s important to operate it safely, much like a car or a piloted aircraft.

The FierceMobileIT article  noted that Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said that the effort to develop a uniform registration process "should lead to increased accountability across the entire aviation community."

According to the article, “Wynne said that proposed FAA rule would require commercial drone operators to register with the agency. The task force will work to expand that requirement to all drone operators. "Once the FAA finalizes its small UAS [unmanned aerial system] rules, there will be an established framework for UAS operators allowing anyone who follows the rules to fly," he said.

The AUVSI and 28 other organizations sent a letter to the FAA last month, complaining that it failed to meet the congressionally mandated Sept. 30, 2015, deadline for integration of UAS into the national airspace system. Now it appears that this won't happen until June of next year.”

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