John Skinner, Major League Baseball vice president of security and facility management, speaks on a panel at the Stadium Managers Association seminar this week in Hollywood, Fla. (Don Muret / Staff)

Working with FBI, league diverts unmanned aircraft from Super Bowl airspace

The NFL, in partnership with the FBI, tested new technology for the 2019 Super Bowl and Pro Bowl that gives outdoor venues the ability to stop potential drone attacks on their facilities.

Andrea Schultz, the NFL’s director of strategic security programs and policy, was principally involved in the counter-drone testing at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta and Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla. Schultz worked for the federal Department of Homeland Security before joining the NFL in 2017. She discussed the tests during a panel session on “Concerns and State of the Business” at the Stadium Managers Association seminar in Hollywood, Fla.

The NFL’s pilot program launched after the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 2018, which was signed into law in October. The legislation sets additional guidelines for drones, allowing stadiums to redirect unmanned aircraft systems invading their air space. For law enforcement authorities, it’s the first time they can legally counter drones in airspace in real time, Schultz said.

Together, FBI and NFL officials had a busy week leading up to Super Bowl Sunday.

“I had the radio in my ear all day,” she said. “I don’t have the full report, but I know we were constantly getting hits from drones and they were able to redirect them to a prepositioned place and land them safely.”

“For the first time, we had an opportunity to actually address this risk,” she said. “It was very exciting, and I’m looking forward to seeing where this (technology) goes in the future.”

There were no issues with drones on game day itself in Atlanta, according to Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s senior vice president of special events. One day after the panel, O’Reilly spoke to SMA attendees remotely from league headquarters in New York.

A few drones received waivers on game day, including one affiliated with CBS, which broadcast the game. Others were used for the halftime show to create special effects, all coordinated with the FBI, he said.

“In the press conferences and the lead-up to the game, (the NFL) and Homeland Security were very clear on the procedures in place, and I think that type of communication in advance helped us a ton on game day,” O’Reilly said.

By comparison, the Pro Bowl, held one week earlier in Orlando, was quiet for drone activity because of a steady rainfall throughout the day, which is not conducive for operating drones, Schultz said.

“We had no risk of drones,” she said. “We had technology out there, but [officials] sure had a boring day. They were ready to go.”

As it stands, for teams to mitigate drone activity, they must first get approval from their state governor and the system must be administered through DHS and the FBI, said fellow panelist John Skinner, Major League Baseball’s vice president of security and facility management.

“We can’t arbitrarily get a drone mitigation because the FAA and all the other entities have said you can’t block these activities (without approval),” Skinner said.

Skinner and Cathy Lanier, the NFL’s senior vice president and head of security, recently attended a meeting with Department of Justice officials at the White House. They were told that documentation by teams is critical for strengthening future anti-drone legislation.

“The U.S. attorney looked at us and said, ‘We want data.’” Skinner said. ‘We don’t want to see a video of a drone crashing (at a ballpark). We know it’s a risk, but we want data on how much this issue is prevalent in your stadiums.’ If we’re ever going to institute change, we need the numbers for the federal government.”

It’s a complicated issue for determining a “good” drone, such as one used by broadcast networks to capture aerial video, vs. one with bad intentions. Last fall, for example, four drones came near Dodger Stadium during the World Series, and they appeared so quickly that officials could not determine their intent, Skinner said.

“Is it just a customer, or an individual trying to get YouTube video, or is it somebody with nefarious intent?” he said. “It’s really a challenge for us, and that’s something that, as time goes on, is an emerging risk despite the legislation we presently have.”

On their own, teams can’t implement “no drone zones,” but there is a piece of FAA legislation enacted in 2016 that could bring some relief to teams in their fight against drones. Labeled Section 2209, it’s more commonly called the “fixed site rule,” which allows stadiums to place permanent restrictions on drones and not just during events, Skinner said.

“Section 2209 is something that we’re working on,” he said. “We’re hopeful and have our fingers crossed that we can be able to dedicate that at least for our ballparks in MLB.”

The most recent legislation is a sign of progress in efforts by teams and facilities to keep their fans safe at events, said Russ Simons, a venue operations consultant attending the conference.

“No one could intercept a drone because of some antiquated law,” Simons said. “There was nothing you could do prior to this (law). Now, it’s the first time something can be done. Hopefully, we make more progress … so we can implement (safeguards) before an incident occurs.”