On one weekend in September, two football games in Seattle were delayed because of unauthorized drones flying over stadiums.
Near the end of a game between the University of Washington and Stanford on Saturday, September 24, play was stopped for more than 10 minutes to address the risks posed by a rogue drone above Husky Stadium. The drone was not affiliated with either school or with the media outlets covering the event. The operator is still at large.
The next day, a drone was spotted above Lumen Field, leading to an eight-minute stoppage of play in a game between the National Football League’s Seattle Seahawks and Atlanta Falcons. The delay lasted about 10 minutes.
These are not isolated incidents. In recent years, more and more reports of unauthorized drones at stadiums during sporting events and concerts have appeared in the media. In 2020 alone, five Major League Baseball games were interrupted by rogue drones. Over the past year, there have been reports of at least three professional soccer matches in Europe being delayed by drone flights.
“We are seeing frequent issues over the last couple of years, with multiple game delays and disruptions happening every season,” said Manu Srivastava, Vice President of Business Development for WhiteFox Defense Technologies. “There has an uptick in incidences every year both what is being publicly reported and what we are seeing with our customers.”
Although most reported drone disruptions have not resulted in personnel injuries or property damage, unauthorized uncrewed vehicles flying in and around large public events present multiple risks.
“Drones pose a number of dangers and disturbances when flying over stadiums and events, including causing panic and unease among spectators and participants, disruption and delays of the event, which can cause business continuity issues, and the possible loss of control of the drone causing bodily or structural harm,” Srivastava stated. Also, he said, drones present “the chance of criminal intent by something harmful being attached to the drone.”
Starting last month, the eyes of the world were on Qatar for World Cup 2022, and authorities are very concerned about potential disruptions that could be cause by unauthorized drone operations. Walid Chahine, Smart Communication Systems Managing Partner, led the effort to ensure airspace security for all games. “Securing the skies is critical to ensure the safety of the public and the athletes,” says last Chahine. “We created a tiered drone detection system for the venues with WhiteFox Defense’s DroneFox as the supportive layer providing long range RF detection and real-time threat assessment, including for multiple drones such as swarms. This technology is integrated with other systems to detect drones that may try to interfere with matches. However, the DroneFox ensures a detailed examination of most drones and allows precise tracking of many drones and their pilots.”
Back in the US, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has created strict rules for drones at outdoor sporting events. The agency prohibits the flying of drones in and around stadiums starting one hour before and ending one hour after the scheduled time of Major League Baseball, National Football League, NCAA Division One Football, NASCAR Sprint Cup, Indy Car, and Champ Series events with at least 30,000 attendees. Under FAA rules, uncrewed aerial vehicle operations are prohibited within a radius of three nautical miles of the stadium or venue.
To further address the problem, the FAA, working with the Stadium Managers Association, has created a “toolbox” to aid in media and public outreach. The toolbox contains signage, broadcast and social media announcements, and other materials that call attention to the threats posed by drones at large public events.
According to Srivastava, many stadium officials are building on the FAA rules and tools to craft their own drone detection and protection programs. “Some stadiums, event venues, and security firms are ahead of the game when it comes to drone detection and risk mitigation,” he reported. “For example, many have detection units in place, such as the WhiteFox STRATUS solution, to detect and track drones and their pilots during the events, as well as security protocol to address the risk.”
However, Srivastava cautioned, “We are yet to see one standard procedure or requirement for stadiums and venues to manage this risk.” Moreover, he said “law enforcement is highly aware of the dangers and are adopting better protocols to address them, but there still limited if they don’t have the technology to track the drone and pilot.”
With this in mind, many in the stadium and public safety community feel that more needs to be done to protect the public from rogue drones. These efforts including working with security experts like WhiteFox to craft targeted, effective solutions.
“WhiteFox works with stadiums and events to address their drone problem by deploying our different services, whether that be STRATUS, our commercial, cloud-based drone detection/identification software, or by deploying our DroneFox technology which with proper approval can mitigate a drone by safely landing it” Srivastava reported.
To show the effectiveness of these solutions, WhiteFox helped secure a large, three-day music festival in the Los Angeles area in 2021. “We deployed a sensor to assist law enforcement securing the event,” Srivastava said. “During the festival, our software and sensors detected over 10 unauthorized drone flights over the 5,000+ person audience. Law enforcement officials were able to locate the drone and pilot locations and have positive, educational interactions to mitigate the risk of the drones over the crowd.”
As efforts like this demonstrate, drone detection and mitigation programs centered on innovative technology and strong coordination between public safety authorities and stadium officials can lead to safer experiences for players, performers, and fans.