Close to two years ago, an unwelcome visitor to an NFL playoff game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Oakland (now Las Vegas) Raiders briefly drew fans’ eyes away from the action on the playing field and up to the skies. The culprit? A small drone.
Perhaps the Bengals are simply unlucky. Because this week, the team’s game against its divisional rival the Baltimore Ravens on Amazon Prime Video’s Thursday Night Football was halted not just once, but twice, by another drone. The stoppage was the latest in a rising number of drone-related incursions at NFL stadiums that have worried league officials and U.S. lawmakers alike.
“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.”
This time, the incident occurred at M&T Stadium in Baltimore rather than the Bengals’ home field at Paycor Stadium (formerly Paul Brown Stadium) in Cincinnati. That first incursion prompted the NFL to change its policy. Since then, officials have stopped games and cleared the field whenever a rogue drone is spotted—which is exactly what happened Thursday night.
The first game stoppage happened with about five minutes remaining in the second quarter as the Ravens were working their way down the field. Referees spotted a red-and-green flashing object hovering inside the stadium, bringing play to a halt.
“Apparently, there was a drone inside the stadium, so they have stopped play,” Prime Video commentator Al Michaels said on the broadcast before the camera switched to the aircraft. “So there you go. And we’ll take a commercial break.”
After the break, everything appeared to be back to normal. That was until the fourth quarter, when players and coaches were forced to the sidelines for a second time. Michaels said officials took an “administrative” timeout and were waiting for the drone, which apparently had reappeared, to leave the airspace. The Ravens, though, said the stoppage was “precautionary” and unrelated to the aircraft.
“We heard there were drones,” Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said in a postgame interview Thursday night. “Is that what you guys heard? We saw them up there. That’s a first. I thought I’d seen it all with the Super Bowl, with the lights going out at the [Ravens-San Francisco 49ers] Super Bowl [in 2013 at the Superdome in New Orleans]. Now we have drones flying around.”
An anonymous team source told The Baltimore Banner that play resumed in the second quarter after the drone’s pilot brought it down. The team would not say whether it planned to investigate further.
Representatives for the Maryland Stadium Authority, though, said police were able to locate the pilot, who claimed to be unaware of the restrictions and did not have a waiver to fly during the game. Details were passed along to the FAA’s law enforcement assistance program, which told The Banner it’s looking into the incident.
A Worrying Trend
Unfortunately for football fans, it’s not just the Bengals and Ravens who have had play disrupted by drones. In fact, Cathy Lanier, the NFL’s chief of security and the chief of police for Washington, D.C., from 2007 to 2016, said in October that the league experienced about 2,500 drone incursions over stadiums and the restricted airspace surrounding them in 2022. That’s nearly double the 1,300 incidents reported the previous season.
Only a handful of these took place during actual NFL regular-season or playoff games. But each incident has forced players to the sidelines—and ignited fears over what the aircraft may be carrying.
One such incursion happened in September 2022, when an unlicensed drone flew over Seattle’s Lumen Field, halting play between the Seattle Seahawks and Atlanta Falcons.
Another took place during the most viewed event in American television. Before Super Bowl LIII between the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams kicked off at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, an FBI team spotted a drone hovering over the field, just moments before six Air Force F-16s were set to perform a flyover. There was no time to shoot it down. But luckily, the agency told the F-16 pilots to fly at higher altitude and avoided a collision.
The fear among the NFL and other major American sports leagues, such as the NCAA, MLB, and NASCAR, is that the drones could be used to harm players or spectators. So far, incursions have not led to physical injury: The closest call was a 2017 incident during an MLB game between the Arizona Diamondbacks and San Diego Padres, where a drone crashed into the stands just inches away from a spectator.
Still, the potential for a collision with a spectator or player—or for the drones to carry weapons or explosives—has league officials and lawmakers on edge.
“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 last month.
The FAA, NFL, NCAA, and other pro sports leagues already have plenty of rules in place to deter drone incursions. The FAA, for example, prohibits drones that fly at or below 3,000 feet above ground level within 3 nm of any stadium that seats 30,000 or more, including one hour before and after games, which is the temporary flight restriction created for stadiums and other large venues following 9/11. Violators can incur civil penalties of up to $37,000 or even criminal prosecution.
The problem, though, is that stadiums lack the infrastructure needed to enforce these rules—and they have little recourse when a drone does enter the airspace.
Plenty of arenas have guards or metal detectors to prevent incidents on the ground. But only a handful—including the Ravens’ M&T Bank Stadium—have any form of aerial security. And that still wasn’t enough to deter Thursday’s rogue drone.
Taking down the buzzing aircraft is an even larger issue. Under the Safeguarding America’s Skies Act of 2018, two U.S. agencies—the FBI and Department of Homeland Security—are authorized to jam or bring down unlicensed drones. That’s it.
Out of about 121,000 requests for FBI and DHS counter-drone support to stadiums since the law took effect, just 77 have been approved, according to Lanier. Federal teams are only sent to major events, such as the Super Bowl, while regular-season games are largely unsupervised. For the most part, the only thing the occupants can do is wait for the drone to leave.
And if lawmakers don’t act soon, not even the FBI or DHS will be able to help. That’s because their counter-drone authority is set to expire on Saturday. FBI Director Christopher Wray said failure to reauthorize the two agencies could leave the U.S. “effectively defenseless” against threats to mass gatherings, airports, and other critical infrastructure—such as sporting arenas.
In July, Peters and Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) introduced Senate legislation that would renew the Safeguarding America’s Skies Act and extend drone jamming and takedown authority to state and local law enforcement. It and a House companion bill have received bipartisan support and the backing of the NFL, NCAA, MLB, and NASCAR.
However, updates have been sparse since the legislation was introduced, and it’s looking increasingly like the FBI and DHS’s authority will expire this weekend, despite the pleas of NFL officials and lawmakers.
Until it’s renewed—or local staff are given takedown authority—NFL fans may see more drones fly routes over stadiums as players run fly routes down the field.