Game of Drones

January 6, 2015

In the aftermath of Christmas, spare a thought for those that surrendered to pressure and bought their children this year’s “must have”. Whilst small unmanned aircraft (“SUA”) and small unmanned surveillance aircraft (“SUSA”), or “drones” as they are better known, could provide hours of entertainment, their use also has the potential to have more sinister implications. For example, drones have disrupted flights into JFK and Heathrow, attacked restaurant goers bearing mistletoe in Brooklyn and even been used to smuggle contraband into prisons in California.

There is little doubt that, in the realms of sport, drones may provide certain benefits. Such (currently unexploited) advantages include access to unique camera angles and, in a wider context, the gathering of important analytics on player performance which is not possible with conventional ground based equipment.

However, drones also have the potential to cause severe disruption to sporting events. In football alone, there have been a number of incidents such as the use of a drone at Manchester City’s home game with Tottenham Hotspur (which resulted in the police releasing a statement asserting that the drones “could pose a threat to crowd safety and potentially cause alarm in crowded areas”) and the recent appalling scenes when a SUA carrying a politically-inflammatory flag was flown over Partizan Stadium, thus igniting century old feuds between Albania and Serbia (between both rival players and fans).

Unfortunately, national aviation authorities did not see the drones coming and are therefore playing catch-up with the belated introduction of legislation. The approach of European regulators differs from that of the United States. Across the pond they have prohibited the use of drones to all but hobby and enthusiast users, thus stifling commercial development. Europe has taken a more open and forward-thinking approach, leading to companies such as Amazon testing parcel delivery by drones in Cambridge.

In a sporting context, the most likely use for SUA (i.e. drones without surveillance capabilities) would be ambush marketing stunts promoting unauthorised brands. Whilst no examples exist in a major sporting event yet, given some of the imaginative lengths ambush marketers go to, it is only a matter of time.

Thankfully for us sports lawyers, sporting event organisers in the United Kingdom have considerable protection from drone disruption. This protection is predominantly derived from the Air Navigation Order 2009 (the “Order”). Key requirements for the lawful operation of a SUA (of any size with or without surveillance equipment) include:

166 (1) A person must not cause or permit any article or animal (whether or not attached to a parachute) to be dropped from a SUA so as to endanger persons or property.
166 (2) The person in charge of a SUA may only fly the aircraft if reasonably satisfied that the flight can safely be made.
166 (3) The person in charge of a SUA must maintain direct, unaided visual contact with the aircraft sufficient to monitor its flight path in relation to other aircraft, persons, vehicles, vessels and structures for the purpose of avoiding collisions

To give you an example of the use of the Order, the design and build of modern stadia and/or event perimeters would likely interrupt the line of sight of a person operating a drone, thus breaching Article 166 (3).

The law is more stringent, by virtue of s167 of the Order, for SUSA (i.e. drones with cameras or recording equipment attached). This section prevents all SUSA from operating without the express permission of the Civil Aviation Authority (“CAA”) when they are flown:

  • Over or within 150 metres of any congested area.
  • Over or within 150 metres of an organised open-air assembly of more than 1,000 persons.
  • Within 50 metres of any vessel, vehicle or structure which is not under the control of the person in charge of the aircraft.

Such criteria effectively prevent the operation of SUSA at major sporting events. Furthermore, permission and a training course is required from the CAA for operating the SUSA on a commercial basis (“Aerial Work”)

Sporting event organisers who find their events disrupted by a drone can rely on police and the CAA to investigate, but in the first instance good legal advisers can deal swiftly to ensure the offenders are prevented from further disrupting the event. The first prosecution by the CAA related to drones in the UK took place in April 2014 when Mr Robert Knowles, of Barrow-in-Furness, was convicted of two offences under Article 167 of the Order including operating an unmanned surveillance aircraft within 50 metres of a structure (a traffic bridge). He was fined £800 at a District Magistrate Court with the CAA also being awarded costs of £3,500.  This conviction followed the case of a photographer from Lancashire receiving a caution for operating a SUSA for Aerial Work without permission. The photographer had sold footage from his quadcopter to media organisations. These examples show that the CAA is taking violations very seriously and even monitor Youtube for such infringements.

It is important to remember that, whilst drones are capable of adding a lot of value to sport and rights holders, event organisers must always be aware of the risks of unauthorised activity. Parents on the other hand should appreciate that their Christmas gift, if not operated responsibly, could have very expensive, serious and unintended consequences!

The contents of this article are intended for general information purposes only and shall not be deemed to be, or constitute legal advice.  We cannot accept responsibility for any loss as a result of acts or omissions taken in respect of this article.

Key Contact