On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, Sacramento resident Tracy Mapes drove to Santa Clara, flew a drone over Levi’s Stadium and dropped a payload of leaflets espousing his conspiracy theories over the San Francisco 49ers-Seattle Seahawks game.
A year ago this month , a San Diego bartender crashed his drone into a fan at the Padres’ Petco Park.
While Mapes was later arrested and the bartender was fined, team security and local police were unable to stop the flights — whether with high-tech jammers or other means .
“Federal law prohibits local law enforcement from disarming or disabling drones, even if they are in restricted airspace,” said National Football League Senior Vice President Jocelyn Moore. “This loophole in federal law puts the safety and security of millions of sports fans and eventgoers at risk.”
The same prohibitions also apply to the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and most other federal agencies.
The Trump administration on Wednesday tapped 10 pilot projects, from mosquito control in Florida to food delivery in California, that it hopes will offer lessons for how to sharply expand drone use nationwide. But major league teams are increasingly anxious about the more than 1 million drones that government officials estimate are already in use. They are asking Congress to give local law enforcement permission to seize or reroute drones flying over stadiums. And they are trying to get in a position to protect themselves.
The families that own the New York Mets have invested in a Silicon Valley firm, Airspace, that uses artificial intelligence-driven drones that can find and capture other drones. Farzam Kamel, a partner at Sterling VC, an investment arm of the Wilpon and Katz families, said they are working to address the “very rare but devastating threat that can come.”
“Knock on wood that hasn’t really happened in our market or in the U.S. But it would be foolish to think it won’t or it can’t,” Kamel said.
Citi Field, home of the Mets, is a good place to demonstrate the technology, Kamel said, given its complex environment . It’s near LaGuardia Airport, so team officials must work closely with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, along with the Federal Aviation Administration and the New York Police Department.
“So do we wait until something devastating happens before we get realistic about it? Or are we practical and plan accordingly now, so that we can avoid that outcome?” Kamel asked.
The Padres asked engineers from Airspace to recreate the bartender’s ill-fated drone flight over their stadium. Executives say they were able to detect the approaching drone from afar and nab the intruder midair with a Kevlar net.
“Our kids are going to be in those stadiums,” Airspace chief executive Jaz Banga said.
Team officials are impatient, saying the problem has been clear for years.
“There’s technology out there that we can use, and we do use,” said Cathy L. Lanier, the NFL’s senior vice president of security, including tools to detect when drones are flying nearby. “But the technology we really need is not yet legal to use.”
The Defense Department was freed over the past two years, in certain cases, from prohibitions against intercepting electronic communications and “sabotaging” aircraft to address drone threats.
The Trump administration has proposed giving the departments of Homeland Security and Justice similar powers.
But Lanier, the former D.C. police chief, said that proposal “doesn’t help us, because I don’t think I’m going to get a Secret Service or DHS agent to 256 games a year” to defend NFL venues against drones. The FAA imposes temporary flight restrictions near stadiums during games, but they are routinely ignored.
Lanier said the incident at the 49ers game was just the latest reminder of the risk. “There are a lot of other things that could have been delivered that way that could have been a lot worse.”
Still, allowing widespread use of counter-drone technologies comes with its own set of issues.
Last year, the Trump administration sought counter-drone powers for numerous federal agencies, but the request was rejected based on bipartisan concerns in Congress that it was too broad. Some legal scholars say allowing government agencies to intercept communications related to drones could have conflict with civil liberties.
The FAA fiercely guards its control of U.S. airspace, and officials there say such consistency contributes to the nation’s stellar safety record. Allowing aircraft — in this case, drones — to be interrupted raises safety issues, some aviation experts said.
There also are concerns that stray signals from anti-drone defenses could interfere with cellphones or radios, possibly affecting heart monitors or airplane navigation equipment.
Still, given the threats, a number of private firms are taking legal risks, calculating that the consequences of breaking the law would be less severe than an attack. Some stadiums deploy technologies that can interfere with an operator’s ability to control a drone, according to an administration official who was not authorized to speak publicly.
FBI director Christopher A. Wray, testifying before a Senate panel in September, noted terrorists’ use of drones overseas and said, “I think the expectation is it’s coming here imminently.”
Lanier says there is understandable debate about allowing counter-drone measures that could cause collateral damage.
“But we have to get it together sooner or later,” she said. “Drones aren’t even new. The new technology now is autonomous vehicles. We’re already behind the curve by a couple generations.”
The Dallas Cowboys’ and Texas Rangers’ stadiums, as well as those at the Universities of Nebraska, Missouri, Texas and Kentucky have all had unwelcome visits from drones, according to FAA records obtained under a public records request. One operator flew his drone “in close proximity” to four parachutists landing at the University of Kentucky. He later lost control and crashed the device inside the stadium; he was fined $2,200.
One problem, authorities say, is they can’t tell friend from foe.
The FAA is pushing for a requirement that all drones have the electronic equivalent of a license plate to allow for remote identification and tracking. That would require changing an existing ban on FAA regulations on the more than 1 million drones deemed “recreational.”
The House passed a bill last month outlawing guns on drones, though some in Congress questioned whether that, too, would be undermined by existing law.
Mapes posted videos showing test runs of his leaflet drops in the days before he headed for the 49ers game. “I had bombed the Sacramento Area, Capitol TV Stations for 1 month prior to the 2 NFL games in November,” he wrote in an exchange of messages with The Washington Post.
His fliers were emblazoned with a stark red “X,” an American flag and his name. He warned that “Prostitutes and Felons have been Infiltrated into America’s Newsrooms and Local Municipal Politics,” as well as the Oval Office.
“These leaflets were passed out in quite a scary way for us,” Santa Clara police Capt. Wahid Kazem said. “We’re not only worried about what is coming down from the sky from this thing. We’re worried about how people are reacting to that in the seats.”
Even spooking a tiny fraction of the crowd could lead to tragedy, he said.
“You get 500, which is just a drop of what’s in there, running or trying to get out of the seats and into the aisle and into the concourse and out the door — you’re probably going to have people falling, injured, trampled,” Kazem said.
Mapes drove off toward the Oakland Coliseum, where he hoped for a repeat performance.
Authorities found Mapes near the coliseum, and he was later charged with a misdemeanor. Federal officials opened an investigation, which continues.
Mapes once worked in news video and now lives in an 8-by-7-foot shed after his rent was raised, he said. He plans to continue his “campaign to turn this God damned country back into some form of sanity that I might recognize from childhood, before I run out of breath.”