Drone Incursions at Major Events Are on the Rise. How Technology is Working to Prevent Them

Mary-Lou Smulders, Dedrone

The 2023-24 football season that came to a close last week once again shone a spotlight on the rising security threats present at large-scale events.  The sport, one of the largest in the world, is best enjoyed live, but the nature of live events means they can be interrupted for any number of reasons. 

Despite massive resources in place, even the Super Bowl itself isn’t immune to unexpected interruptions, such as a power outage that notably stopped 2013’s game for just over half an hour. This last season has made it clear that a new threat is taking center stage: unauthorized drones. 

Increasing Security Disruptions

“Administrative timeouts” caused by drones flying over stadiums have stopped a number of games this past NCAA and NFL season, including and most notably the AFC championship game. That pilot is now facing three felony charges and up to four years of prison, having broken a temporary flight restriction (TFR) and causing an interruption in play by flying over the stadium. These consequences reflect how seriously the FAA takes the TFRs put in place for many large events, including NCAA football, MLB, NASCAR and NFL events. 

Fortunately, the Super Bowl wasn’t stopped for any security reasons this year, not even when two attendees ran onto the field while the game was being played (in fact, the play still counted). The game was not interrupted by unauthorized drones, due in large part, to thorough safety measures taken by the NFL and supporting security entities. It also likely helped that Las Vegas’ Allegiant Stadium is domed, albeit with 80-foot wide windows! 

However, recent data has made it clear that there continue to be serious incursions and near-misses associated with drone flights at big games. As NFL Chief Security Officer Cathy Lanier previously revealed, an F-16 being flown by the US Air Force Thunderbirds nearly crashed with a drone during the pre-game flyover at Super Bowl LIII in 2019. What’s more, drone incidents at NFL games almost doubled between the 2021-22 and 2022-23 seasons. 

The Super Bowl is designated a SEAR 1 (a Special Event Assessment Rating that determines the level of security required) event by the Department of Homeland Security, meaning the government requires “extensive federal interagency support” because of the size, scope and importance of the event. As a result, many layers of security are warranted, including protection against unauthorized drone incursions.

Assessing the Threat

The first step in countering drones is knowing that a drone is even in your airspace. That starts with radio frequency (RF) sensors. From there you can add cameras and radar for more robust protection. 

RF sensors are best at identifying whether something is definitively a drone, rather than, say, a bird. Radar has the longest range, but doesn’t always distinguish between drones and other flying or simply vibrating objects. Cameras are critical, as they offer visual confirmation of whether or not a drone is carrying a payload. Drones are capable of carrying fairly significant weight, like drugs over the southern border, which creates a growing concern for security. 

Determining the type of drone, its direction, and whether it is carrying a payload will significantly affect the security posture and protocols of safety staff on the ground. While each technology, whether RF sensor, radar or camera, offers important information in assessing a drone threat, they must work in tandem to get a complete picture of the sky. Relying on only one of these methods can leave an asset exposed. 

Mitigating the Threat

Stopping the drone can take a number of forms. Drones can simply be stopped from flying in the first place – often called a “geofence.”  For example, DJI drones use an app to pilot them, and this app is designed to restrict operation when TFRs are in place. However, this isn’t foolproof. For example, the pilot at the AFC Championship said he had experienced times when his app would not allow him to fly, so when it did during the game, he assumed he was in the clear.

Whether that is true remains to be determined, but ignorance is no excuse when it comes to breaking the law. Equally, even when a geofence is in place and operational, tech-savvy pilots can easily bypass it.

To bring a flying drone down is tricky. At most large events, police and security don’t have the authority to mitigate the drone and take it out of the sky. Instead, they have to find the pilot and get them to safely land the drone voluntarily, which has typically involved simply talking to the pilot and requesting they take it down. More recently, laws have been applied to enable the arrest of the pilot and possibly charges. This is what likely took place at the AFC Championship game. 

Drone Mitigation Technologies Deployed for SEAR 1 Events

As a designated SEAR 1 event, the Super Bowl is a notable exception in terms of mitigation technologies available—because the federal government and specifically the agencies that are allowed to use drone mitigation, like the FBI, are heavily involved. That means that drone jamming, where the connection between the drone and pilot is severed, and hacking into the drone to take the drone over, are both viable options. 

Like every year, 2024 is filled with major sporting events—everything from the upcoming Olympics and Paralympics in Paris this summer to the Copa América, the Formula One Grand Prix, World Series and any number of outdoor championships in golf, horse racing, tennis and more.

Not all of these events may run as smoothly as the Super Bowl did, but when they do, there is likely so much more going on in terms of security than what you see on TV. As events like the AFC Championship show, airspace security is mission critical for all large events to ensure fans, players, and staff can all be kept safe. 

Dedrone is revolutionizing drone defense with our advanced AI-Driven Autonomous C2 platform. They have gone beyond the limits of simple sensor correlation to incorporate advanced algorithms and proprietary machine learning techniques, such as behavior model filters, neural networks and AI-based imagery through over 18 million images. visit: dedrone.com

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