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Football Season is Back - and So Are the Drones


Mary-Lou Smulders

drone in sports stadium

It’s September, which means the return of America’s favorite sport: football. Despite Major League Baseball’s number of games (2430) outstripping those of an NFL season (272) by an order of magnitude, the NFL commands the ratings every year, with 2021 regular season games taking 91 spots on the 100 top telecasts of the year.

But what we don’t always see on TV at home is fast becoming a significant problem at major league sports stadiums everywhere: drones. The need for stadium drone-detection systems has never been higher. This July, the NFL, MLB, NASCAR, and the NCAA all signed a letter calling on Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader, Chuck Schumer to pass the Preventing Emerging Threats Act renewal legislation, which includes counter-UAV legislation. The original 2018 law granted the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice authority to do things like seize, disable, or otherwise intercept a drone. However, this authority is soon set to expire – in fact, right in the middle of the NFL season, in October.

There is no time to waste. At last month’s White House summit on advanced air mobility, the NFL’s chief security officer revealed that there were over one thousand drone incursion events during the last season, including one that nearly interrupted the Super Bowl at SoFi Stadium, where this year’s season opener was also held. A statistic that is even more alarming when one considers that all of these unauthorized drone flights occurred in legally established no-fly zones! There is proposed legislation that would reinstate this authority, but fast passage of a bill is never guaranteed.

What can drones do at a sporting event?

We’ve seen it firsthand in our partnerships with entities like the 1/ST Group of Companies, which oversees the Preakness Stakes among other events. Drones can threaten the physical safety of fans, players, staff, and even the horses in the case of racing. They can also disrupt operations or even stop games for extended periods (as with a recent MLB game at Yankee Stadium where a drone flew over the stadium for 15 minutes). Drones could even cause dangerous hysteria by dropping something. Beyond that, they can be used for illegal surveillance and cheating in the form of spying during practices to learn plays – which all major sporting leagues take extremely seriously. If rigged with a camera, they can even provide live broadcasting of the event, which could violate broadcast and other intellectual property rights. (These rights are big business, with billions spent per season.)

However, stadium airspace is not quite as heavily regulated as the airspace around critical infrastructure and airports; only some have temporary no-fly zones established, for example. As the sporting leagues’ open letter notes, they already cooperate with federal officials, but the sheer number of events, which are in the thousands, means that federal officials simply can’t be at every event to exercise the needed authority to mitigate drone activity. The sporting leagues are also asking for “certain clarifying language explicitly stating that specified stadium events—which already receive a certain level of statutory protection—are covered by the proposed legislation,” essentially expanding when and for what events stadiums can expect expanded authority and protections. (Stadiums also play host to music events and other large public gatherings, which can be threatened by drones. SoFi Stadium, where the NFL season opened, will also be the site for the 2028 Olympics opening and closing ceremonies, for example.)

In our partnerships with companies like 1/ST Group, our tools which detect, track and, identify drones and their pilots are always legally permitted, but we can’t always provide the tools to take those drones out of the sky. New regulations like those requested by the sporting leagues, would expand authority for use of counter-drone tools, including where and when they could be used. Unsurprisingly, we are in favor of these kinds of authority expansions, as they enable us to provide more solutions that integrate into security apparatuses.

Until the bill is passed, however, we can expect to see more interruptions from drones, whether you’re enjoying this new NFL season from the comfort of your couch, joining a tailgate, or bundling up alongside thousands of fans at a game in person. Regardless of legislative updates, Dedrone is working closely with law enforcement, the government, and stadiums to ensure that these events are protected from nefarious drones.


September 21, 2022

| Updated

April 25, 2023

About the author

Mary-Lou Smulders is the Chief Marketing Officer at Dedrone, where she leads Dedrone's global marketing and communications team.

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