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As Drones Take Off, MLB Has to Play Defense

"The bottom line is we never know if the intent of that person is to injure someone or just to have a scenic shot."

Vern Conaway was watching a YouTube video when he first realized he would have to start paying attention to drones.

The vice president of public safety and security for the Maryland Stadium Authority—responsible for both Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium—found the video shortly after it was uploaded in 2014. It showed footage of Baltimore, taken by a drone flying over the city’s inner harbor before heading in the direction of Camden Yards, close enough to show a packed stadium with players on the field mid-game. It didn’t fly directly overhead, so it had not been noticed at the time, but it came fairly close.

This, Conaway realized, was going to be a problem.

Now, almost seven years later, it’s clear that he was right—which you might have noticed if you paid close attention to baseball last season. The Federal Aviation Association bans unmanned aircraft systems (drones) from flying over a stadium while a game is in progress. Yet after a handful of scattered incidents over the last few years, MLB saw five games interrupted by rogue drones in 2020. That’s a record high for a league that says it generally sees just one or two such incidents a year—which is particularly notable given the regular season was months shorter than usual.

There’s a guess among ballpark security directors that this increase may have been partially driven by the pandemic: “With the absence of fans in the stands in 2020 due to the pandemic, we anticipated an uptick in drone activity around games, because we believed fans who may be unaware of drone regulations would be curious to see what was going on inside our ballparks,” MLB vice president of security and ballpark operations David Thomas writes in an email. But the increase also matches broader trends that existed before COVID-19: Drones are more common than ever, they’re only continuing to grow in popularity and they’re increasingly a question for security professionals at ballparks.

“It’s become a significant factor in the whole security conversation with stadiums,” says Mike McCormick, legal counsel for the Stadium Managers Association, which represents those who manage ballparks, football arenas and others.

A drone overhead might seem harmless: Several instances of drones over stadiums have come from hobbyists who don’t know about the restrictions in place and are simply curious about trying to take some photographs. But at the least, it’s a distraction, and at worst, it could represent a serious threat from someone trying to do harm. 

“There are a few cases that we’ve seen where drones have either lost control or connectivity with the user, and if it ends up flying inadvertently into a crowd, it can injure people," says Blue Jays vice president of stadium operations and security Mario Coutinho. (In 2017, a drone crash-landed by Petco Park in San Diego after nearly hitting several fans.) "The bottom line is we never know if the intent of that person is to injure someone or just to have a scenic shot, and we can’t take that chance to determine, ‘Oh, it’s nothing.’ "

Pointing at a drone

Increasingly, stadiums are incorporating into their security plans systems that detect and identify drones.

“ ’Exponentially’ is probably a good term to use,” Terry DiVittorio says of the growth in demand for counter-drone tech services like D-Fend, where he serves as general manager of operations for North America.

These companies’ discussions with stadiums have shifted in recent years. Now, after high-profile drone incidents in both the NFL and MLB, counter-drone tech is seen as a basic defense measure. Even just two or three years ago, however, the tenor of the conversation was different.

“We’ve had to do a lot of education for the market to explain that, hey, you can do a lot by securing your perimeter, but somebody can bypass your fences, your metal detectors, bypass everything you’ve just worked hard on,” says Robert Tabbara, CEO of 911 Security. “We’re seeing a little more traction now, but it’s definitely been uphill, with a lot of education.”

A counter-drone service like these is just one piece of the security equation. The FAA has strict regulations about how drones, like any other aircraft, can be treated by a commercial entity like a ballpark. A stadium can’t just, say, shoot the drone out of the sky. (Not that it would want to—a falling drone would pose a serious safety risk.) It can’t legally seize control of its operations to land the drone somewhere safe or jam its signals to prevent it from going further. Instead, then, stadiums generally use their counter-drone tech simply to identify where the drone’s pilot is located, so they can have security address them face-to-face.

The majority of people who are encountered like this are “just careless or clueless,” DiVittorio says. While security has to approach these people carefully, so they don’t panic or do something like crash the drone into the playing field, there generally is not a problem with getting them to listen. But there’s another class of offenders—those who do it on purpose.

“It’s the technological version of the fan running on the field during the game, right?” Conway says. “They’re also the biggest challenge for security, because … these are people intentionally trying to disrupt and interfere with the game, so they’re also going to be the ones that are difficult to locate, and when you locate them, they may not necessarily be accommodating or compliant with the instructions.”

The drone that interrupted a Cubs game in September, for instance, was piloted by someone who had flown over a different major league ballpark in another state. The Cubs use Tabbara’s company, 911 Security, as their counter-drone service, and the system had blacklisted his drone because of this prior activity. (The Cubs did not respond to a request for comment.) When the operator flew in the vicinity of Wrigley, the stadium received an alert, and security personnel were able to locate and confront him—but not before he had a chance to land the drone in the outfield.

Local media reported at the time that Chicago Police confiscated his drone and issued him a citation. That’s another wrinkle in the landscape here: The FAA’s restrictions apply nationwide, but local and state enforcement for people who violate those restrictions can vary greatly.

“Every state is different. Some of them are very proactive, with a lot of rules and regulations, some of them have done nothing, but as there are more problems, we’re seeing more legislation,” says Tabbara.

Ideally, however, stadiums would like to stop operators far before they ever get their aircraft overhead. That means signage all over and around the stadium, a note in every fan guide and extra information available online. “A lot of times, [drone operators] don’t fully appreciate the potential risk involved, or the amount of resources that are going to get diverted during the game to respond to their action, so that’s why we really focus on that awareness and prevention piece first,” says Conaway. The FAA has a vested interest in that, too—it now has a social media campaign with the Stadium Managers Association: “Be a Good Sport: Leave Your Drone at Home.”

The goal is to “reach people who might be unaware of the rules and might not really understand that we consider them pilots,” says FAA administrator Steve Dickson. “If they’re flying in the airspace, they’ve got a role in making sure that operations are conducted safely.”

The FAA does not keep data specifically on the number of drones that have been spotted flying over stadiums. But the agency is alerted any time a drone violates flight restrictions, more generally, and that happens “several times a day,” Dickson says.

When asked whether MLB had introduced leaguewide security measures for drones, in addition to the response plans at individual stadiums, Thomas said yes, but he could not share any details. He added that the league discusses drones “regularly” in meetings with the FBI, FAA, Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security. And the issue isn’t expected to fall off the radar anytime soon. As drones continue to grow in popularity—with not only hobbyists but companies that may use them to deliver packages, for example—it will only be more important for stadiums to be capable of identifying them and understand what to do next.

“There’s so many potential commercial uses for drones that it’s only a matter of time before drones are as common as birds in our skies,” says Conaway. “And so we just need to make sure that our stadiums and outdoor venues have the capabilities necessary to adequately protect our fans.”