Could One Pilot’s Mistake Deter Rogue Drones at the Super Bowl?

The FAA has announced temporary flight restrictions in Las Vegas, the site of Super Bowl LVIII, for the big game and the week leading up to it.

As Super Bowl LVIII between the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers approaches, one drone pilot’s costly mistake could deter others from disrupting the final game of the National Football League (NFL) season.

A Pennsylvania man faces felony federal charges and up to four years in prison after flying a drone over the Baltimore Ravens’ M&T Bank Stadium during the American Football Conference (AFC) Championship game between the Ravens and Chiefs on January 28, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland. The pilot violated a temporary flight restriction (TFR) that is standard for all league regular season and playoff games.

“Illegally operating drones poses a significant security risk that will lead to federal charges,” said U.S. Attorney Erek L. Barron. “Temporary flight restrictions are always in place during large sporting events.”

The incursion, which briefly stopped play, was the latest in a string of incidents involving drones over American professional sports stadiums. In fact, M&T Bank Stadium encountered a similar situation in October that prompted an FAA investigation. Stadium officials also reportedly intercepted five drones during a November contest between the Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals.

In the wake of the disruptions, the FAA last week designated Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas—the venue for Super Bowl LVIII—as a “no drone zone” on the day of the big game, as well as during the week leading up to it.

The Incident

According to federal prosecutors, Matthew Hebert, 44, flew a DJI drone from about one mile outside M&T Bank Stadium into the venue during the first quarter of the AFC Championship matchup. 

The small, buzzing aircraft was “deemed a serious enough threat” to halt play, prompting an “administrative timeout.” That procedure became standard following a 2022 incident at the Bengals’ Paul Brown Stadium (now Paycor Stadium). Now, NFL Security pauses games and clears the field whenever a rogue drone is detected.

The FAA had placed a TFR around M&T Bank Stadium, prohibiting drone flights within 3 nm of the venue, including one hour before and after gameplay. The protocol is standard for all regular and postseason NFL, MLB, NASCAR, and NCAA Division I contests.

Maryland State Police tracked the drone to its landing site, where they deployed troopers and found Hebert. The pilot told authorities he had purchased the drone—which was unregistered—in 2021. Hebert also did not possess a remote pilot certificate, which is required by the FAA to operate most drones under 55 pounds (with exceptions for recreational flyers).

Hebert used his DJI account, which is supposed to inform users of TFRs, to operate the drone. As he had done on previous occasions, he relied exclusively on the account to tell him where flights were permitted. The application noted no restrictions, so Hebert assumed it was safe to fly.

Allegedly, Hebert flew the drone above 320 feet for about two minutes, taking six photos of himself and the stadium and possibly a video. The penalties for knowingly operating an unregistered drone and for knowingly serving as an airman without an airman’s certificate—the charges Hebert faces—total three years in federal prison. The pilot also faces a maximum of one year for willful violation of U.S. National Defense Airspace.

The Maryland Attorney’s Office noted, however, that actual sentences for federal crimes are typically less than the maximum.

“Operating a drone requires users to act responsibly and educate themselves on when and how to use them safely,” said R. Joseph Rothrock, acting special agent in charge of the FBI’s Baltimore Field Office. “The FBI would like to remind the public of the potential dangers of operating a drone in violation of federal laws and regulations.  The reckless operation of a UAS in the vicinity of a large crowd can be dangerous to the public, as well as interfere with other law enforcement and security operations.”

A federal district court judge will determine Hebert’s sentence. His initial appearance and arraignment will be scheduled this month.

Sounding the Alarm

The rising number of drone incursions has worried players, coaches, league officials, aviators, and even members of Congress. Only a handful of these have occurred during actual gameplay, and none have resulted in injury, despite a few close calls. But the aircraft in the past have dropped items such as leaflets into stadiums, raising alarm bells about what else they could deploy.

“We’re concerned about somebody who would use [drones] in a nefarious way and drop a grenade that would do considerable damage and possibly kill individuals,” Senator Gary Peters (D-Mich.), chair of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, told NBC News in October.

Cathay Lanier, NFL chief of security and the former chief of police for Washington, D.C., from 2007 to 2016, said drone incursions over NFL stadiums nearly doubled between the 2021 and 2022 seasons, from about 1,300 to 2,500.

One incident even took place at a previous Super Bowl. During the winner-take-all game between the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams in 2019, an FBI team spotted a drone moments before a fleet of Air Force F-16s were set to perform a flyover of Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. In the nick of time, the agency managed to tell the pilots to fly at a higher altitude. Had it not, the results could have been catastrophic.

According to counter-drone firm Dedrone, major sporting events in 2023 saw 4,000 illegal drone violations across 60 stadiums, a 20 percent increase year over year. Las Vegas, where the Chiefs and 49ers will square off on Sunday, uses the company’s DedroneCityWide, which covers critical areas of the city such as stadiums, airports, and the Las Vegas Strip. The city began using the software in the wake of the 2017 Mandalay Bay mass shooting.

“We realized that we had to analyze all potential threat vectors to our city, including drones,” said the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. “Ahead of Super Bowl LVIII, our collaboration with external security and public safety groups, both public and private, is essential to providing a safe environment to attendees, players, staff, and the citizens of Clark County.”

However, counter-drone measures in the past have proven ineffective against rogue aircraft. Following 9/11, the FAA created a TFR for stadiums and other large venues prohibiting drones that fly at or below 3,000 feet agl within 3 nm of any stadium that seats 30,000 or more.

But by and large, stadiums lack the infrastructure to enforce these rules. Only a handful of venues—including M&T Bank Stadium—have any form of aerial security. Yet the Ravens’ home field has seen at least three drone incursions in the past five months.

When a drone does enter the airspace, stadiums have little recourse. The FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are the only U.S. agencies authorized to bring down rogue drones. But out of about 121,000 requests for FBI and DHS counter-drone support to stadiums since 2018, only 77 have been approved, according to Lanier.

“[Drones] enter that restricted airspace, they are violating the law,” Lanier said in an interview with NBC News. “All we’re asking for is the ability to take control of that drone and move it out of our airspace.”

Ben Wenger, chief revenue officer of Dedrone, added: “The federal government clearly understands the threat posed by drones, or the FAA wouldn’t have put these TFRs in place ahead of the game. Although not every drone flight we recorded was nefarious in origin, some of them were—and those are the kinds of flights that can stop games or ruin concerts and other events being held at stadiums.”

To address the issue, Peters and Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) introduced Senate legislation that would extend drone takedown authority to state and local law enforcement. The proposal has received bipartisan support and endorsements from the NFL, NCAA, MLB, and NASCAR. But unless it becomes law, stadium officials will remain stuck with little recourse.

“Without a change in federal law, mass gatherings will remain at risk from malicious and unauthorized drone operations,” the NFL said in a statement to FLYING. “For more than a year, we have been calling for passage of the bipartisan Safeguarding the Homeland from the Threats Posed by Unmanned Aircraft Systems Act, which would empower state and local law enforcement to safely mitigate drones like the two that disrupted the game in Baltimore. It’s time for Congress to act.”

Supervising the Super Bowl

Given the growing number of incursions, the FAA felt the need to emphasize the TFR in place before and during Super Bowl LVIII.

At 11:00 a.m. PST on Sunday, drones will be prohibited from flying within 2 nm of Allegiant Stadium up to 2,000 feet agl. Between 2:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., the restrictions will expand to a 30 nm radius and 18,000 feet in agl. At various times between Monday and Friday, drone flight will also be restricted within 1 nm of Allegiant, the Resorts World area, and Wynn Casino.

The “inner ring” within 10 nm of the stadium will be accessible only to approved law enforcement or military aircraft, as well as certain regularly scheduled commercial passenger and cargo carriers. Other operations, such as flight training, survey operations, and ultralight flight, are unauthorized for the entire TFR.

Drone pilots—just like traditional ones—who enter the Super Bowl TFR without permission could face criminal prosecution or fines in excess of $30k, or their drone may be confiscated. Additional details on the TFR can be found here. The FAA has also released guidance for non-drone pilots, including GA pilots specifically.

“We continue to see considerable efforts made to crack down on illegal drone incursions at big events, and the arrest of the drone pilot following the AFC Championship game is a good example of how serious law enforcement takes these incidents,” said Mary-Lou Smulders, chief marketing officer and head of government affairs at Dedrone. “It is safe to say that counter-drone measures will be a significant part of security efforts both at the Super Bowl and the surrounding events taking place all week long.”

The trend of drone incursions could continue beyond Super Bowl LVIII, however. According to the FAA, there were 860,000 registered drones in the U.S. in 2022—a number the regulator predicted could surpass 2.6 million by 2025. Pilots, meanwhile, are reporting more unauthorized drone sightings than ever before.

Officials are also wary of rogue drones at airports, which occasionally have led to mass flight delays or cancellations. Increasingly, the aircraft have been reported to smuggle contraband or weapons into prisons or across the U.S. southern border.

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