NFL voices drone fears as counter-UAV legislation nears expiration

Ahead of Thursday night’s kickoff of the National Football League’s (NFL) 2022 season, officials stepped up to reiterate concerns about the looming expiration of legislation that allows a limited number of federal agencies to take out drones invading airspaces or otherwise posing threats during large events.

The alarm was sounded by NFL chief security officer Cathy Lanier just hours before the Bills beat the Rams 31-10 in the league opener. Speaking to Bloomberg Law, Lanier said the combination of current anti-UAV legislation set to expire October 5, and the rising number of drones in the skies, increases the potential risks to spectators, athletes, and anyone else attending NFL games or other large events. 

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Past incursions have largely come from pilots violating banned gameday airspaces for relatively innocent reasons – ignorance of rules or hoping to capture spectacular video – which nevertheless create the threat of accidental crashes.

But the increased use of drones by drug cartels, human traffickers, or other criminal groups – as well as their deft use in warfare in Ukraine and in bombing attacks across the Middle East – have fueled NFL worries about the possibility of UAVs being used for mass strikes at future sporting events.

“I’m concerned about the nefarious actor, quite honestly,” Lanier told the agency, adding the advances in craft sophistication and operation made the nearing expiration of existing anti-drone legislation an ever-growing concern to the NFL. “The frustration is twofold: keeping pace with the technology so that we have the technology to counter the threats as they evolve, but also having the legislation to support our ability to keep pace with that threat.”

The NFL, along with Major League Baseball, the NCAA, NASCAR and other organizers of big sporting events had previously expressed their concerns to lawmakers about the expiring drone laws. They were joined by members of Congress urging the adoption of the  Domestic Counter-Unmanned Aircraft Systems National Action Plan the White House released earlier this year. 

Read moreWhite House seeks to enlarge actors authorized to track and zap suspect drones 

That proposal seeks to “expand UAS detection authorities for state, local, territorial and Tribal (SLTT) law enforcement agencies and critical infrastructure owners and operators.” It would also “create a Federally-sponsored pilot program for selected SLTT law enforcement agency participants to perform UAS mitigation activities and permit critical infrastructure owners and operators to purchase authorized equipment to be used by appropriate Federal or SLTT law enforcement agencies to protect their facilities.”

If its opening day appeal finds receptive ears, the NFL’s alert over the nearing expiration of current anti-drone laws could help usher in even an even better security system. 

Current legislation allows US Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security to intercept UAVs operating illegally, posing threats, or possibly seeking to do harm – usually by hacking into their control system. The White House proposal broadens the number of potential actors considerably, and could feasibly be amended during passage to widen the anti-drone tech used – a move former Washington DC police chief Lanier said the NFL would welcome.

“The federal authorities that currently have this authority just don’t have the bandwidth to cover all the mass gatherings,” she said.

The NFL reported 1,400 violations of game day airspaces by drones last season alone – flight bans covering areas three miles around major sporting events spanning an hour before games begin up until the 60 minutes after they end.


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