Will drones become a major security threat at outdoor stadiums? That question is sparking more debate, after a man operating a drone recently dropped anti-media leaflets on NFL crowds at both Levi’s Stadium in San Francisco and the Oakland Coliseum. He was arrested for violating airspace laws.
As The San Francisco Chronicle reported: “It is illegal to fly a drone within five miles of an airport without authorization. If flown for hobby purposes, a drone operator must notify the airport prior to flight, and if it’s for commercial purposes the pilot must have an FAA license and get authorization. Both Levi’s Stadium and the Coliseum are within five miles of airports.”
The propaganda dropped “was something about free speech and his belief that television stations are corrupt,” Santa Clara Police Lt. Dan Moreno told the newspaper, adding that the FBI, the California Highway Patrol, and neighboring county and city agencies were investigating.
The incident — and it’s not an isolated one — raises additional questions about the use of drones at open-air sporting events.
“If one of [the drones] were to crash — the blades are sharp — we certainly don’t want them hitting the crowd or the players,” Moreno said. “It’s kind of up to the abilities of the drone operators, and there is no way of knowing if they know what they are doing. A stadium is not a good place to fly a drone.”
“Imagine the reaction if a drone hovered above a popular sporting event, sprinkling an unknown white powder over the crowd,” suggested the Internet of Things Institute earlier this year.
“A stunt like this would cause pandemonium, even if the powder in question was merely powdered sugar,” JB McDowell, a sales engineer at Dedrone, an airspace security platform that detects, classifies and mitigates drone threats, told the website. “You would have to have everybody quarantined, because you don’t know what that substance was. And stadium owners around the nation would freak out and postpone games and increase security.”
Drones at stadiums are tough to stop, though. “It’s scary for all of us,” Lou Marciani, director of the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security, told the Chicago Tribune in 2015. “A crash, even without a payload, has the potential to injure several people. And if they carry a payload, it could be anything from a weapon to anthrax to something worse than that.”
“They’re going to become more sophisticated, they’re going to become cheaper,” security analyst Jeff Harp told CBS Sacramento. “More people are going to have them, therefore we’re going to have more problems.”
Back in 2015, an unauthorized UAV flew into the U.S. Open and crashed in the stands, disrupting a game and startling spectators. The event now has a “no drone zone” policy. Count on others to do the same.
At the same time, drone sports are growing in popularity. There are multiple avenues for drone racing, including on the international circuit. In addition, drone-to-drone combat is gaining popularity in the Aerial Sports League, which has helped pioneer robotic sports entertainment for more than five years.
“The goal of the game … is to knock the opponent’s drone to the ground three times in a five-minute timeframe,” reports SportTechie.com. “Competitors have 90 seconds to fix their drones when they get knocked down, and they can attack the other drone using brute force or by employing safe weaponry like net launchers or dangling fishing wire.”
The league “prides itself on creating safe environments for spectators,” according to the website. “The league’s drone combat events typically have walls of netting all around the arena so that the drones can’t impact the audience. On top of that, there are strict restrictions on the types of weapons that can be used. In an arena with simple netting, weapons like flamethrowers, chemicals, EMP devices and airsoft guns would all be prohibited.”
Marque Cornblatt, co-founder and CEO of the ASL, ultimately wants to create a “drone sports destination,” similar to Disney World, for drone-related games and activities. This got us thinking: What other security threat also has warrants its own competition? We can’t come up with any, which makes drones among the most complex of all sports-related security challenges.