Get Out of Our Space

Get Out of Our Space

Responding and mitigating the threat of drones in and around stadiums

Most people, when confronting a drone (Unmanned Air Vehicle/Unmanned Air System) operating in or around their area of responsibility in an unsafe manner, would like to bring it down immediately.

Unfortunately, unless you are a federal agency with special permission or on a military base, it is unlawful to interfere with the flight path of a drone. So what can be done?


As it is commonly said “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” The first step is to inform the public that flying drones in and around a stadium is illegal and dangerous and operators will be prosecuted. For instance, at the 2015 Super Bowl, signage and billboards displayed the message that the area was a “NO DRONE ZONE.” This type of media campaign has also proven quite effective in Utah, significantly reducing the number of drones present at wildfires with posters and signs such as this one, below.

Reducing the number of incidents of drones overhead makes it simpler to deal with the remaining drones.

Ideally, the safest and most ideal preventive action would be to stop the drone from ever entering the stadium. A simple way to do this would be to direct a beam of RF energy onto the drone that would disrupt the communications to the operator. This can be done with the kind of Wi-Fi RF jammer that is sold to military and government groups. These Wi-Fi jammers will stop most, if not all, hobbyist, commercial and unsophisticated terrorist drones and cause them to return to where they launched with very little chance of doing much more than interfering with people’s Wi-Fi connection in the very near vicinity.

If after activating the Wi-Fi jammer the drone continues toward the stadium, then there is a very high probability of a serious threat. The next stage would be to activate a GPS jammer that jams the GPS receiver on the drone. However, a GPS jammer will also interfere with cell tower and emergency communications, and should only be used if the Wi-Fi jammer is ineffective. This technology is already available and in use by approved organizations.

The problem with the above response method is that it is not legal to be utilized by stadium operators and law enforcement in most locations around the world, including the U.S. Namely, it is illegal to interfere with the flight path of a drone or intentionally interfere with another electronic device. Some start-up companies have approached this by trying to develop drones that capture other drones or net guns to snare a drone, but these technologies are yet not authorized by the FAA to be deployed at stadiums. Others try to hack or spoof the communication of a drone to gain control, but these approaches still fall in the same category as RF jamming interference and are restricted by the FCC.


Because of the difficulty in preventing visits from these unwelcome guests, the planning and preparation for such an event becomes crucial. According to Jim Martin from Venue Intelligence, whose Playbook mobile app is used to plan and communicate event and safety procedures to diverse stakeholders at live events and large venues. Key steps that Martin increasingly sees implemented include:

  • Understanding what, if any, approved drones will be utilized at the event. Have all appropriate contact information accessible for the organization/pilot, and have him/her credentialed and given a clear understanding of where and how the drone will be used. This step further allows you to reduce the number of “false alarms” by identifying those drones that are approved at your event. “This is an easy one to miss,” says Martin. “We see a number of events with drones hovering overhead and often just a single person or two that are aware of whether it’s authorized. It’s better to have more of your team aware then less, particularly as the public becomes more aware of the potential risks.”
  • Meeting with all the stakeholders and your security team to brainstorm how to respond to different threat postures that the drone may take. “The likelihood of a drone carrying a chemical or explosive is still considered a low-probability (albeit, high impact) scenario. It’s more likely that an operator would lose control of a drone and crash it into the crowd or event itself. There should be some discussion around what to do if that were to occur.”
  • Documenting the procedures and creating actionable expectations of specific roles in reporting/addressing the situation, specifically: looking for the pilot, taking a picture of the drone and/ or its pilot as you approach, if/ how dialogue, escalation options and reporting and/or texting information to the appropriate POC.
  • Incorporating the new procedure into training events where all personnel are required to execute the plan of action, identify gaps and take action to fill those gaps.
  • Effectively distributing the procedures and expectations to your personnel and all key stakeholders. “That was the catalyst for building the Playbook mobile app,” says Martin. “We want to leverage all the viable stakeholders at an event or venue as a force multiplier, and increasingly that includes volunteers. So whether they want a quick refresher on their specific role, need to take a picture and text it to a POC or start a quick incident report, that option is on their phone and just a click or two away.”
  • Gathering feedback via a hotwash/after-action meeting to capture any/all drone-related sightings or observations

Detection and Identification

After the number of nuisance drones have been reduced through proactive messaging and a comprehensive plan has been established and communicated across your key stakeholders, the next step is detection and identification.

Detection may be done by a number of different sensor technologies including: acoustic, optical, radio sniffers and radar. Of these, radar is the most robust as it detects that actual moving target by transmitting radio waves that bounce off the drone to the radar and does not suffer from environmental effects like acoustic and optical sensors. Radio sniffers can also be quite effective if the radio used by the drone is one known and supported by the radio sniffer. Otherwise, the radio sniffer will not be able to properly detect that it is a drone.

However, if the drone is running silent by going to a location using only GPS and no user input, then the radio sniffer will have no transmissions to detect. Within radar there are several different technologies available, including large rotating or electronically scanned radar with ranges of 2km to 4km that cost in the millions. For ranges of up to 1km there is a smaller and much less expensive radar technology called Compact Surveillance Radar (CSR) that is able to detect and pinpoint the GPS location of a drone to ranges of 1km and is suited for more complex urban environments.

Early detection of an approaching drone is key as it gives security personnel time to react before the drone is overhead. By detecting the drone far outside the perimeter, it is possible to train high resolution cameras onto the drone and evaluate the type of payload being carried. In the case of a drone simply carrying a video camera, then law enforcement may be informed and a search for the operator initiated. If the drone is carrying a large payload of what may be explosives or dangerous chemicals, then a more complicated response may be in order.


So what does the FAA recommend as the course of action?

The FAA uses the DRONE acronym to help remind those involved of the recommend procedures:

Direct Attention outward and upward, attempt to locate and identify individuals operating the drone Report Incident to the FAA Regional Operations Center Observe the drone and maintain visibility of the device Notice features: identify the type of device Execute appropriate police action

Martin indicated that a number of customers have used Playbook to share this sort of directive with their volunteers, staff and vendors but even more importantly, are looking to use the Playbook platform and other mass notification systems to send discreet escalation messages that shouldn’t go out over traditional radio.

Preparing for an Evacuation

In the case of a stadium or other large event venue, one of the main threats posed is the panic caused by the drone dropping suspicious looking objects or causing explosions. Even if a drone has been detected and identified carrying a suspicious payload, most stadium operators would not be inclined to order an evacuation. A drone carrying leaflets may look exactly the same as a drone carrying biological or chemical agents and while neither is desirable, the evacuation of a stadium for such a reason would undoubtedly result in a variety of significant, if not catastrophic outcomes. That is not to say precautions shouldn’t be taken.

In the case a suspicious drone, security staff and other associated resources can be discreetly notified or messaged to prepare for a possible incident and evacuation, while the appropriate officials continue to diagnose the drone’s intent. These actions could include: ensuring all exits and evacuation paths are noted and accessible, readying stadium parking resources and confirming postevent traffic patterns/controls.

By simply walking through a series of precautionary steps and without taking any extreme measures, event staff can inconspicuously prepare the venue for a more efficient and effective response to a crisis.

In some cases, an evacuation is clearly warranted. The Department of Homeland Security has provided guidance in planning an evacuation at a stadium. This document describes the structure, planning and testing of the plan for numerous types of threats, which now includes drones. Some organizations have even put together public evacuation plans that are available to be viewed on YouTube.

This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Security Today.


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