The remote controlled aircraft which flew a flag emblazoned with an Albanian symbol over the UEFA Euro 2016 qualifier between Serbia and Albania in October 2014 brought a premature end to the match amid violent scenes, with fans invading the pitch and players being hurried off under the protection of ground security. Whilst this political stunt captured the attention of the footballing world, it also brought to light another emerging issue facing professional football and other sports – the use of unmanned aircraft being flown over or into sports stadia.

The flying of these aircraft for non-military purposes is a fairly recent development, increasing as the price and availability of the equipment has become more suitable for the general public. This has coincided with the rapid advancement of video recording technology. It was only a matter of time, therefore, until these two technologies were combined into what is technically known as an “unmanned surveillance aircraft” and more commonly known as a “drone”.

In the UK, the use of drones to capture aerial footage of football matches played in both the Football League and the Premier League has come to the attention of those responsible for ground safety after a number of videos were uploaded onto YouTube. These videos show a birds-eye-view of players, stadia and fans rarely seen before and which has certainly never been as readily available. Whilst the footage is undoubtedly impressive, and could potentially provide inspiration for future advertising campaigns, concerns have been raised as to the impact such use is having on the safety of fans and players alike. The principal fear is that given the size of the drones, which can weigh up to around eight kilograms, and the fact that they often have up to four helicopter-style spinning blades, if there is a malfunction, or the user simply loses control, serious injury could be caused to a number of people inside a stadium.

The Civil Aviation Authority (“CAA”) governs the use of drones both commercially and recreationally through the Air Navigation Order 2009 (“ANO ‘09”). Article 167 of ANO ’09 prevents the flying of small unmanned surveillance aircraft in the following circumstances, unless permission has been granted by the CAA:

  • Over or within 150 metres of any congested area;
  • Over or within 150 metres of an organised open-air assembly of more than 1,000 persons;
  • Within 50 metres of any vessel, vehicle or structure which is not under the control of the person in charge of the aircraft;
  • Within 50 metres of any person, with the exception of take-off and landing (30 metres) and the person in charge of the drone.

A recent case has shown that this legislation is available to sports teams to prevent the flying of drones over their stadia. During the Premier League match between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur in October 2014, a drone was flown over the Etihad Stadium which was found to be controlled by a man situated in the car park of a nearby supermarket. This man was subsequently arrested for offences under the ANO ’09 and released on police bail (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-29689360). There have been other arrests for illegal use of drones, though not in relation to sporting events, with the first conviction resulting in an individual being fined £800 and ordered to pay the CAA’s costs of £3,500.

It is not just in the UK where drones are proving to be an issue for sports. There have been recent examples in American Football, at both high school and college level, of drones being used to film matches as well as training sessions. The law in relation to drones in the United States is less clear however, and even though concerns have been raised as to the safety of players and fans, the use of drones in this manner is seemingly becoming more accepted throughout the relevant US leagues. 

The organisers of the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow have perhaps provided the best example of how to combat the use of drones during large sporting events. Prior to the Games, a number of regulations were successfully applied for which temporarily restricted the flying of aircraft over the events. These included the Air Navigation (Restriction of Flying) (Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, Cycle Time Trial Event, Muirhead, North Lanarkshire Prohibited Zone) Regulations 2014 and the Air Navigation (Restriction of Flying) (Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, Shooting Event, Barry Buddon, Angus) Regulations 2014. These regulations were deemed necessary following concerns about security and public safety and applied to drones as well as larger aircraft.

 Whilst the use of drones is still a relatively minor issue in the sporting arena, the ability to prevent their use could be extremely valuable in the future. Although much of the debate surrounding their use currently centres on safety and security, preventing individuals from gathering footage of sporting events could also prove increasingly important in future for the protection of intellectual property rights.