After a rather unfortunate end to 2018, Gatwick Airport administrators have learned that a little prevention goes a long way. Europe’s 8th busiest airport is busy installing anti-drone solutions to keep the UAVs away and airport authorities around the globe are following their example and investigating ways of protecting their own runways.
But another drone-related story out of the UK demonstrated that it’s not just airports at risk. The Daily Mail, a British newspaper known for salacious reporting on celebrity doings, ran a story of a different sort last week – an unrepentant drone pilot named “Mic” who regularly buzzes horse racing tracks. The reason?
Horse racing is typically broadcast with a 2-second delay but punters, who traditionally relied on the delayed feed to place their bets, are willing to pay a premium for a real-time broadcast and the all the advantages it provides. And that is exactly what Mic and his drones deliver.
Mic technically isn’t doing anything illegal. As he explains to a reporter, he is a licensed commercial drone pilot and makes sure to follow all the CAA (the UK civil aviation authority) rules on UAV operation in public spaces, even carefully avoiding a racetrack that happens to sit within Heathrow Airport’s restricted airspace. But his story illustrates just how vulnerable open-air sports venues and events are to drone intrusions.
In the case of racetracks, Mic’s broadcast piracy is legal, but costly to track administrators who lose control over how races are covered and the profits that come with that control. Other athletic events run a similar risk with pirated broadcasts of matches potentially threatening viewership numbers and advertising revenues.
An earlier World Cup produced a story that while not attracting a lot of attention should be of particular interest to athletic groups: the French national football team caught a UAV piloted by a still unknown pilot hovering above their training session, prompting a FIFA investigation.
The French coach, Didier Deschamps, acknowledged the difficulty of halting drone intrusions while adding “we don’t want any intrusion into our privacy. It’s very hard to fight this [rogue drones] these days.” Indeed, for the 2018 World Cup, the Brazilian team even installed an anti-drone system of its own (link in French) to protect its training sessions from the spying devices.
2018 saw new drone espionage scandals including investigations into the admission that Werder Bremen (Germany) staff had used drones to spy on rival team practices. Werder Bremen’s coach seemed almost nonchalant about the espionage, describing it as common.
But other pilots have sought to cause far more trouble.
In 2017 an American drone pilot flew over two NFL stadiums on the same day, dropping leaflets containing an anti-media message over the crowds.
“If they are dropping leaflets, they can drop anything really, if you think about it, and it’s kind of scary to think that someone can just fly something over during the game and nobody can really stop it,” said one fan who was frightened by the incident. And she raises an important point: drones are capable of carrying biological or explosive substances to be released over crowds. This time it was only flyers, but some malevolent actors, such as the Islamic State have clearly stated that they have other, more sinister ideas.
In 2018, ISIS released chilling propaganda images threatening the World Cup Russia tournament showing event venues in flames over which a quadcopter hovered, its camera glaring menacingly at the viewer. As if the pictures weren’t sufficiently explicit, the group issued an accompanying message: ‘We’re watching you. We have drones, we’re scouting out locations and we’ll attack.’
Russian authorities wasted no time, installing drone detection and drone jamming technology in and around stadiums in several cities and its Federal Security Service claims to have foiled an unspecified number of terror plots involving drones during the event. Quick action by the authorities appears to have saved thousands of fans from possible injury or worse.
Even without dropping a single bomb, a drone can sow mayhem on the pitch and in the stands as illustrated by the 2014 Serbia/Albania qualifier played against the background of the still fresh Kosovo conflict. An Albanian nationalist piloted a device fitted with a “Greater Albania” flag over the tense match riling up the crowd. When a Serbian player yanked the flag from the air, chaos broke out as fans stormed the field and began confronting Albanian players, leading to violence and injuries.
The match was abandoned and tensions between the Serbian and Albanian governments soared as each accused the other of provocation. While cooler heads eventually prevailed, the intrusion is yet another reminder of the power of one rogue drone pilot to sow chaos and violence in tense situations.
Despite clear evidence pointing to the danger rogue drones can pose to both players and fans, many professional sports clubs and venue administrators appear to have taken little action.
“By not putting in place appropriate airspace security above their venues, some clubs and stadiums are taking an enormous gamble” warns Lucas Le Bell, CEO, and co-founder of CerbAir. CerbAir’s anti-drone solutions are currently protecting a major French football club as well as prominent music festivals and political gatherings from malevolent UAV intrusions where their efficacity has been put to the test on multiple occasions.
“Gatwick was a warning to everyone that not having an anti-drone strategy in place can be far costlier than installing a simple, but effective system to detect rogue drones and locate their pilots” he continues. “Sports venues are often particularly vulnerable to this issue because they’re open to the air and easily infiltrated by low cost and widely available consumer drones.”