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The No-Drone Zone: Why Event Owners and Venue Operators Need to Set Limits

9 Jan, 2019

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

The Olympics a no-drone zone? Count on it for 2020. The Japanese government has released a statement that all unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will be banned from use anywhere near venues during the Tokyo Games.

An article, carried in Inside The Games,  noted the announcement was made by governmental agencies in Tokyo and Japan. As well as at sporting venues during the Games, drones will also be barred from flying near major airports, while flying them near facilities for either the Japanese Self Defense Force or U.S. military bases has been permanently banned.

A similar ban will be imposed during the 2019 Rugby World Cup, which is also taking place in Japan.

While there was no statement on the direct cause of the rule pertaining to the Olympics, it is no surprise, coming in the wake of an incident at Gatwick Airport in London, which had to close and cancel flights because of drone sightings near the runway.

The incident started on the night of Wednesday, Dec. 19, at the heights of the pre-holiday rush. Approximately 1,000 flights were either delayed or cancelled. The pre-Christmas travel plans of about 150,000 passengers were hit hard during the 36 hours of disruption, noted CNN. Two people were arrested, then later released without charges, and authorities are continuing to follow-up. Officials in Britain say it was a hard lesson – but a lesson nonetheless, and that new rules and safeguards can be instituted on a forward-going basis because of the incident.

The news of both the London catastrophe and the Tokyo announcement should serve as a wake-up call to sports event owners, as well as venue operators in the U.S., however.

Plenty of drones likely found new owners during the most recent holiday season, meaning plenty of spectators will be interested in using them during sports events to film overhead shots. And it may be that some professional photographers already own them or are thinking of acquiring them. It is up to event owners and venue operators to work together to understand any existing rules, or to set them – and to work with the laws that already govern such devices. And those laws are no joke: anyone flying in a careless and reckless manner could face civil and criminal penalties, as well as jail time. The FAA can levy fines up to $27,500 for civil penalties and/or up to $250,000 for criminal penalties.

 The site, Know Before You Fly, includes information on laws as well as a link to the FAA’s Drone Registration program.

In October, the University of Dayton Research Institute created a simulation to show the damage an airborne recreational drone could do to an airplane wing. The sight of the tiny aircraft tearing through the wing of the plane and leaving a gaping hole is a sobering reminder that while UAVs may be meant to be harmless, their presence may not be. (In fact, the video bears a horrifying similarity to that of the plane crashing into the World Trade Center in 2001).

Already, the U.S. has seen the disruption caused to sports events by the presence of drones. In 2017, a man was arrested after using a drone to drop propaganda leaflets on a crowd during an NFL game. CNN noted a drone piloted by a student crashed into the University of Kentucky’s football stadium during pregame festivities in 2015. That incident happened just two days after a drone disrupted one of the highest-profile events in professional sports: the U.S. Open. The drone's 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 New York Police Department.

Sometimes, the use of drones can be advantageous. The theatrics provided by hundreds of UAVs were an integral part of the 2018 Super Bowl halftime show, making it a  first-ever. Hundreds of the devices helped Lady Gaga kick off her show, presenting a colorful, swirling backdrop as she stood on the roof of Houston’s NRG Stadium. 

Of course, truth be told, the drone sequence wasn’t live but was instead filmed earlier in the week, as Intel confirmed to The Verge. That included Gaga’s intro sequence, which saw her dancing in front of an American flag, and a later 10-second spot that featured the drones as they changed from the Pepsi to Intel logos. Restrictions placed on the area by the FAA made it illegal for drones within a 34.5-mile radius of the NRG Stadium, in addition to other rules that bar drones from hovering too high, or from doing acrobatic maneuvers directly above hundreds of thousands of people. (The lesson here being that everyone has to follow the FAA’s rules – even the NFL and Lady Gaga).

With a new year of sports just beginning – to be kicked off in a few weeks with the next Super Bowl – it’s time for event owners, venue operators and others to create the ground rules before they have to look to the skies.

Do you have a policy regarding drones? Take SDM’s poll here!

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