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Drone restrictions aim to keep skies friendly above The Ralph

Shortly before kickoff at the University of Kentucky football game last Saturday, skydivers safely parachuted onto the field. But at the same time, a law student’s drone crash-landed just outside the stadium.

Two days earlier, a drone flying over a women’s singles tennis match at the U.S. Open crashed into an empty section of seats at Louis Armstrong Stadium in Flushing.

Other incidents in the last year have involved people flying drones at Carolina Panthers and University of Texas football games and outside the Philadelphia Phillies ballpark.

Those drones buzzing above and around sporting events recently are causing authorities to fight back with new regulations.

That’s especially true in Buffalo.

So anyone thinking of flying a drone above Ralph Wilson Stadium for the Buffalo Bills’ home opener Sunday will be in violation of three regulations: federal law, a new Orchard Park town ordinance and the Bills’ stadium policy.

In fact, the new Orchard Park law, enacted in July by both the town and village boards, is believed to be the first of its kind among National Football League communities.

Most drones are operated harmlessly, with no ill intent, by hobbyists.

But authorities can’t be sure of that when they see such aircraft flying over a stadium packed with thousands of people.

“You don’t know where they’re coming from and who’s operating them,” said Andy Major, the Bills’ vice president of operations and guest experience. “We know that there are fans and people who do it innocently as a hobby, but it’s too easy to lose control of a drone or unmanned aircraft device. Something could go wrong, and fans or staff members or players could get hurt.”

The Bills and Orchard Park police have to anticipate the threat posed by any drone operating above the stadium, whether the motive is to have fun, to cause a little excitement or to inflict harm.

“The biggest issue is what happens if this is some type of threat, if it’s going to contain some kind of package, even if it’s not a contaminant,” Orchard Park Police Chief Mark F. Pacholec said Friday. “It could be innocuous, like sugar or flour, but it’s going to cause panic, and people are going to get hurt.”

There’s another issue. Drones run on batteries, and batteries fail, Pacholec pointed out. So a larger drone, weighing up to 10 to 15 pounds, could fall on someone from a height of 100 feet.

“That could kill somebody,” he said.

Some critics, especially in the legal community, have complained that such restrictions would do nothing to stop a terrorist attack.

Mickey H. Osterreicher, an attorney with Barclay & Damon and the general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, has become a strong advocate for the use of drones in public spaces, especially for news-gathering operations.

But he doesn’t object to federal Temporary Flight Restrictions for events like Bills games.

“If they make sense in certain situations, I’m all for them,” Osterreicher said of such restrictions. “In the case of a sports venue with tens of thousands of people, yes. At least for the Bills, I think the TFR is proper and should be honored.”

That’s especially true if an Erie County sheriff’s helicopter also is flying above or around the stadium, he added.

Authorities say that the new drone restrictions are further proof of the close cooperation among the groups most responsible for game-day safety: Orchard Park Police, the Erie County Sheriff’s Office and the Bills, including their security staff.

Last January, Major, from the Bills, attended a meeting of the Stadium Managers Association in California, where officials talked about the concerns and threats of drones flying over packed stadiums. He continued those conversations at an NFL security conference in June, when a consensus seemed to emerge that the problem needed to be addressed.

“We decided to take their advice to at least start the process of every stadium having a policy that drones are prohibited on game day,” he said.

So the list of prohibited items inside Ralph Wilson Stadium on game day includes two new categories this year: any tobacco products and “Drones, Unmanned Aircraft Devices.”

Continuing talks among Orchard Park police, the sheriff’s office and the Bills led to the new Orchard Park ordinance.

Both the town and village of Orchard Park passed local laws in July, amending a section on unlawfully trespassing to include such unmanned aircraft.

So in Orchard Park, people are prohibited from operating a drone within one mile of any open-air event attended by at least 200 people, including sporting events, concerts, festivals, parades and other events. A second section of the town law prohibits anyone from operating an unmanned aircraft within three miles of Ralph Wilson Stadium on game day, from four hours before a game to two hours afterward. That is roughly 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. for a 1 p.m. kickoff.

Violators will be charged with a violation, not a crime, punishable by up to a $250 fine and/or 15 days in jail, Pacholec said.

Osterreicher, the attorney and a former photographer for the Buffalo Courier-Express, said he isn’t sure whether such local ordinances dealing with public space can survive legal challenges.

He also cited the obvious limitations of any regulation.

“You can’t legislate against stupidity,” he said. “You can put all these restrictions in place, but it’s not going to stop bad actors from doing stupid things.”

After the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the Federal Aviation Administration established a Temporary Flight Restriction, restricting air-space use within three miles of any stadium housing 30,000 or more fans. That applies from one hour before an event to one hour afterward.

Last October, the FAA clarified its policy, emphasizing that drones were included in such bans. Violators can be fined and sent to jail for up to one year.

Like the Internet and cellphones, drones are a new phenomenon that’s here to stay, so our nation’s policies, mores and laws toward their use are evolving.

As Major put it, “It’s still such a relatively new issue in the world and country that everyone has their eye on, to make sure fans are safe and stadiums are safe.”

email: gwarner@buffnews.com

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