NFL, Congress Wary of Rising Drone Incursions During Games

American lawmakers and major sports leagues—including the NFL, NCAA, and others—seek greater authority to ground rogue drones.

drone incursion NFL

The latest incident occurred over the weekend during a college football game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Maryland Terrapins at Ohio Stadium in Columbus. [Courtesy: Ohio State University]

In football, there are many routes a receiver can run. There’s the “slant,” where the player runs a few steps forward before cutting across the field. An “out” or “comeback” calls for a cut toward the sideline.

Then there’s the “go” route, typically a straight sprint down the field—coaches sometimes refer to this as a “fly.” But it appears some drone pilots have misinterpreted the terminology as a cue.

Increasingly, as players run fly routes on the field, drones are flying routes through the air during the game, sparking concern from the NFL, NCAA, and even some members of Congress. Incursions involving rogue drones have grown so frequent that Cathy Lanier, NFL chief of security, spoke out about the issue this week.

“They enter that restricted airspace, they are violating the law,” Lanier, who also served as chief of police for Washington, D.C., from 2007 to 2016, 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.”

Incursions on the Rise

According to Lanier, there were about 2,500 drone incursions over NFL stadiums during the 2022 season, nearly double the 1,300 or so incidents the season prior.

The latest episode occurred during a college football game between Ohio State University and the University of Maryland this past weekend. When officials spotted a drone over Ohio Stadium in Columbus, they quickly suspended play and pulled players from the field. Police later tracked down the pilot, who was arrested and faces multiple criminal charges, including unsafe operation of an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner.

The incident is one in a string of drone-related disruptions that security officials and U.S. lawmakers worry could pose a potential safety threat to fans.

One occasion in 2017 saw a pilot fly a drone over Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, during an NFL game between the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks. He then drove an hour to fly the small aircraft over Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum—where the then-Oakland Raiders were facing the Denver Broncos—using it to drop leaflets over both crowds. The pilot was later arrested and charged by federal prosecutors.

Three more high-profile incursions took place last year. On September 25, 2022, a drone disrupted a college football showdown between the University of Washington and Stanford University. The following day, an unlicensed drone flew over Seattle’s Lumen Field, halting play between the Seahawks and the Atlanta Falcons.

And this month, a man was sentenced for flying a drone over Paul Brown Stadium (now Paycor Stadium), home to the Cincinnati Bengals, during a January 2022 playoff game between the Bengals and Raiders. The incident prompted the NFL to change its policy—since then, officials have stopped games and cleared the field whenever they catch a whiff of unlicensed drone activity.

According to Lanier, Super Bowl LIII between the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams in 2019 was a particularly close call. An FBI team spotted a drone moments before six Air Force F-16s were set to perform a flyover of Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, and there was no time to shoot it down. Luckily, the agency managed to tell the F-16 pilots to fly at higher altitude.

So far, drone-related incursions have yet to result in physical injury: The nearest miss 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 more violent encounters has security 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.

But local law enforcement and stadium staff—for the NFL and other leagues—have little to no ability to prevent incursions or handle the drones themselves.

What Are the Rules For Drones Over Stadiums?

Rulemaking by the FAA, NFL, NCAA, and other leagues already limits drone flights in or around stadiums during events. But the rules are difficult to enforce, and stadium staff and local law enforcement have little recourse when the buzzing aircraft enter their airspace.

During events, the FAA 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. The regulations specifically cover MLB, NFL, NCAA, and NASCAR competitions, among others.

In essence, the FAA created a temporary flight restriction for stadiums. Violations can incur civil penalties of around $37,000 or even criminal prosecution, and the agency promotes the use of signage and slogans (such as “It’s game day, put your drone away”) to discourage unruly pilots. It even put out an advisory urging fans not to fly drones during Super Bowl LVII between the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles on February 12 at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.

But like most FAA policies, there are a few exceptions to the rules.

The NFL was actually the first major U.S. sports organization to fly drones over stadiums and fields with FAA permission in 2015. However, it can only deploy a handful of approved models and must fly during daytime under strict supervision. Most importantly, the aircraft cannot be flown during games.

The league mainly uses the technology for marketing purposes, though a few teams have flown drones to film practices. The NCAA, meanwhile, updated its drone rules for the 2023 season to clarify that the aircraft are not permitted over the field or sidelines when players are present.

The only entities cleared to fly drones during games are broadcasters. Fox Sports, for example, deployed them to cover the 2023 MLB All-Star Game between innings and outs. The network also uses drones to cover United States Football League games while players are on the field. And CBS Sports flew them indoors to add a fresh angle to this year’s Final Four men’s college basketball games.

Stadiums have plenty of guards and metal detectors to prevent incidents on the ground, but they lack security measures to prevent incursions in the air outside of these special cases. Some, though, have attempted to curb the trend. 

The Maryland Stadium Authority, which oversees venues used by the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens and MLB’s Baltimore Orioles, partnered with drone incursion specialist Aerial Armor to ramp up security. But while it was able to locate the operators behind a few incidents, it could not prevent them, underscoring the issues Lanier, Peters, and others have with the current rules.

For one, drones are still allowed to be flown in and around stadiums one hour before games, giving tailgaters an opportunity to disrupt the airspace. FAA regulations also exclude stadiums that seat less than 30,000 fans, which means some venues, including many minor league baseball stadiums, remain susceptible to rogue aircraft.

The bigger issue, though, is that only the FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have authority to jam or bring down unlicensed drones, granted via the Safeguarding America's Skies Act of 2018. However, security officials told NBC News the agencies only send counter-drone teams to major events such as the NFL’s Super Bowl or MLB’s World Series. By and large, regular-season games are untouched.

Since the law took effect, Lanier said only 77 of about 121,000 requests for FBI or DHS counter-drone support to stadiums and other venues have been approved. Making matters worse, the agencies’ authority is set to expire next month along with the current congressional spending bill.

To remedy this, Peters introduced legislation in the Senate that would extend drone jamming and takedown authority to state and local law enforcement. Both it and a House companion bill have garnered bipartisan support and the backing of the NFL, MLB, NCAA, and NASCAR. However, some worry the bill is too intrusive, granting law enforcement too much authority and discretion to shoot down what could be nonthreatening drones.

Regardless of what happens with the legislation, drone use is on the rise, which could increase the number of incursions. As of 2022, there were 860,000 registered drones in the U.S., a number the FAA predicted could surpass 2.6 million by 2025. At the same time, pilots are reporting more unauthorized drone sightings than ever before.

Officials also worry about drone incursions at airports, which have occasionally led to mass flight delays or cancellations. And increasingly, pilots are using them to smuggle contraband or weapons into prisons or across the U.S. southern border.

The FAA’s Remote ID rule—for which the deadline to comply was recently extended six months—could help stadiums and local law enforcement keep a more watchful eye on the airspace. But until they have the authority to down drones, future incursions will be tough to prevent.

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Jack is a staff writer covering advanced air mobility, including everything from drones to unmanned aircraft systems to space travel—and a whole lot more. He spent close to two years reporting on drone delivery for FreightWaves, covering the biggest news and developments in the space and connecting with industry executives and experts. Jack is also a basketball aficionado, a frequent traveler and a lover of all things logistics.

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