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Sept. 8, 2015, 9:30 a.m.
Reporting & Production

The journalist’s guide to drones over (or crashing into) stadiums

If you see a camera crashing from the heavens, chances are very good it wasn’t supposed to be there — journalistic intent or no journalistic intent.

In the past week, two drones have crashed into two separate stadiums in the U.S. — the first at the U.S. Open in New York, the second at a University of Kentucky football game. They’re unlikely to be the last, given that more and more drones are sold every day to people who don’t understand the rules and that sporting events attract all kinds of attention.

It’s likely that reporters are going to have to cover these events again in the future. So here’s what you need to know.

Background

Since 2003, and largely in response to 9/11, the airspace around stadiums has become increasingly restricted. Any time there’s a a Major League Baseball, NFL, NCAA Division I football, or NASCAR event going on at a stadium with a seating capacity of 30,000 or more, a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) is in place from one hour before to one hour after the event. That restriction extends from the ground to 3,000 feet above ground level (AGL) and outward 3 nautical miles from the stadium. The airspace is temporarily designated National Defense Airspace. Flying into a TFR without authorization is a violation of federal aviation regulations.

To fly into a TFR, pilots must have permission from the air traffic control (ATC) authority in the area and, in most cases, they must also have an airspace waiver obtained in advance of the flight. If you’ve seen planes towing banners, or camera crews in helicopters, or blimps above stadiums, they were all required to both get permission days in advance of the event and then get clearance from ATC the day of the event.

The means that the FAA uses to inform pilots of these TFRs is called a Notice To Airmen, or NOTAM. The NOTAM establishing National Defense Airspaces around stadiums is here.

So a drone crashed into my stadium. Was the flight legal?

Almost certainly not. And on two levels: federal and state.

Federal: At this writing, only about 1,400 entities are legally able to use drones for commercial purposes (like photographing a sporting event) and none of them have been authorized to fly over stadiums of any kind during an event, large or small. Current commercial restrictions require either 500 feet of separation from people not involved in the operation or a closed set, where only people expressly involved in the operation are allowed. No permitted commercial operator has been cleared to fly in a TFR, and no operator has been cleared to fly inside a stadium when people are there.

It’s possible that some day, a UAS will be allowed to fly near or in a stadium, but it hasn’t happened yet. It’s highly likely that your local drone-crashing operator was not a permitted commercial operator, but you should search for them at the FAA. If the flight is not authorized, the FAA says that’s a violation of National Defense Airspace and is subject to fines, a year in federal prison, or both. As of this writing, no drone pilot has been charged with violating National Defense Airspace.

State: Several states and municipalities have passed drone restrictions making it a criminal violation to fly in certain areas. Also, attorneys have argued that general negligence and disturbance statutes or ordinances could be applied to drone flights that cause damage or physical harm, or even cause the fear of harm. Contact your local prosecutor for this.

What if my event isn’t MLB, NFL, NASCAR, or Division I college football?

If your event isn’t listed as a National Defense Airspace, it’s likely there is not a TFR around it, and the crash would not be considered a violation of that airspace. However, that doesn’t mean it was allowed. The FAA has said it can pursue operators who use UAS “recklessly” and fine them up to $10,000 per flight. So far, only one UAS pilot has been fined by the FAA — Raphael Pirker — and he settled out of court after some interesting legal events. In a drone crash in a stadium not covered by a National Defense Airspace, the FAA would still investigate. Also: State and local laws still apply. Contact your local prosecutor.

How do I know if there’s a TFR around my stadium?

If it’s MLB, NFL, NASCAR, or NCAA Division I football and your stadium seats more than 30,000, there is. To find the exact NOTAM for your stadium requires you to be quick. The FAA posts NOTAMs online, but finding one that’s expired is difficult — and the NOTAM expires one hour after the event. Your local FAA office or ATC facility will have them if you can’t find them online.

What does a TFR look like? How do I read it?

For the most part, the TFRs are boilerplate. The only thing that changes is the start time and title of the TFR. One thing to note: Unmanned or remote controlled aircraft are specifically mentioned as being prohibited in the NOTAM like this: “ALL AIRCRAFT OPERATIONS; INCLUDING PARACHUTE JUMPING, UNMANNED AIRCRAFT AND REMOTE CONTROLLED AIRCRAFT, ARE PROHIBITED…”

Here is an example TFR around the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Memorial Stadium in Lincoln for a football game against South Alabama.

Start Time: Sep 12 19:00 CDT

Event end times are estimated. Check the event schedule for the latest information.

FDC 4/3621 FDC SPECIAL SECURITY NOTICE. SPORTING EVENTS. THIS NOTAM REPLACES FDC NOTAM 9/5151 TO REFLECT A TSA WEBSITE UPDATE AND ADDITIONAL INFORMATION CONCERNING AIRSPACE WAIVERS. FLIGHT RESTRICTIONS IN THIS NOTAM COMPLY WITH STATUTORY MANDATES DETAILED IN SECTION 352 OF PUBLIC LAW 108-7 AS AMENDED BY SECTION 521 OF PUBLIC LAW 108-199. PURSUANT TO 49 USC 40103(B), THE FEDERAL AVIATION ADMINISTRATION (FAA) CLASSIFIES THE AIRSPACE DEFINED IN THIS NOTAM AS ‘NATIONAL DEFENSE AIRSPACE’. ANY PERSON WHO KNOWINGLY OR WILLFULLY VIOLATES THE RULES PERTAINING TO OPERATIONS IN THIS AIRSPACE MAY BE SUBJECT TO CERTAIN CRIMINAL PENALTIES UNDER 49 USC 46307. PILOTS WHO DO NOT ADHERE TO THE FOLLOWING PROCEDURES MAY BE INTERCEPTED, DETAINED AND INTERVIEWED BY LAW ENFORCEMENT/SECURITY PERSONNEL. PURSUANT TO 14 CFR SECTION 99.7, SPECIAL SECURITY INSTRUCTIONS, COMMENCING ONE HOUR BEFORE THE SCHEDULED TIME OF THE EVENT UNTIL ONE HOUR AFTER THE END OF THE EVENT. ALL AIRCRAFT OPERATIONS; INCLUDING PARACHUTE JUMPING, UNMANNED AIRCRAFT AND REMOTE CONTROLLED AIRCRAFT, ARE PROHIBITED WITHIN A 3 NMR UP TO AND INCLUDING 3000 FT AGL OF ANY STADIUM HAVING A SEATING CAPACITY OF 30,000 OR MORE PEOPLE WHERE EITHER A REGULAR OR POST SEASON MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL, NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE, OR NCAA DIVISION ONE FOOTBALL GAME IS OCCURRING. THIS NOTAM ALSO APPLIES TO NASCAR SPRINT CUP, INDY CAR, AND CHAMP SERIES RACES EXCLUDING QUALIFYING AND PRE-RACE EVENTS. FLIGHTS CONDUCTED FOR OPERATIONAL PURPOSES OF ANY EVENT, STADIUM OR VENUE AND BROADCAST COVERAGE FOR THE BROADCAST RIGHTS HOLDER ARE AUTHORIZED WITH AN APPROVED AIRSPACE WAIVER. AN FAA AIRSPACE WAIVER DOES NOT RELIEVE OPERATORS FROM OBTAINING ALL OTHER NECESSARY AUTHORIZATIONS AND COMPLYING WITH ALL APPLICABLE FEDERAL AVIATION REGULATIONS. THE RESTRICTIONS DESCRIBED ABOVE DO NOT APPLY TO THOSE AIRCRAFT AUTHORIZED BY AND IN CONTACT WITH ATC FOR OPERATIONAL OR SAFETY OF FLIGHT PURPOSES, DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE, LAW ENFORCEMENT, AND AIR AMBULANCE FLIGHT OPERATIONS. ALL PREVIOUSLY ISSUED WAIVERS TO FDC NOTAM 9/5151 REMAIN VALID UNTIL THE SPECIFIED END DATE BUT NOT TO EXCEED 90 DAYS FOLLOWING THE EFFECTIVE DATE OF THIS NOTAM. INFORMATION ABOUT AIRSPACE WAIVER APPLICATIONS AND TSA SECURITY AUTHORIZATIONS CAN BE FOUND AT HTTP://WWW.TSA.GOV/STAKEHOLDERS/AIRSPACE-WAIVERS-0 OR BY CALLING TSA AT 571-227-2071. SUBMIT REQUESTS FOR FAA AIRSPACE WAIVERS AT HTTPS://WAIVERS.FAA.GOV.

Photo of police officers standing near the remains of the U.S. Open drone Sept. 3 by AP/Kathy Willens.

POSTED     Sept. 8, 2015, 9:30 a.m.
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