LONDON – Long after drones became a key tool for militaries and spy agencies, authorities now realize the threat they can pose to sports events.
It's not multimillion-dollar military-grade drones prompting concerns, but remote controlled contraptions costing just a few hundred dollars that can be sent soaring over stadiums. And, as the chaos at a soccer game in Belgrade last week showed, a provocative flag or banner being carried by a low-cost device can be a catalyst for disorder.
UEFA President Michel Platini warned that the drone at the abandoned Serbia-Albania European Championship qualifier, where an Albanian nationalist banner ignited an on-field brawl, highlighted a "serious problem" for sport.
"Just imagine that a drone carrying a bomb instead of a flag comes to a ground," Platini said on French television. "What can we do?"
Stopping a determined drone operator is tricky for aviation and security agencies. The small device with four rotors hovered undetected over the Belgrade stadium before being spotted by players and television cameras broadcasting the UEFA match between the Balkan rivals globally.
In recent weeks drones have also been appearing, seemingly undetected, over several English soccer venues: from Wembley to Arsenal's Emirates Stadium. Authorities and clubs only appear to have become aware of their existence after footage appeared on an aviation enthusiast's YouTube channel, showing a bird's eye view of pitches.
One clip viewed around 10,000 times was filmed over the London derby between Arsenal and Tottenham last month. When Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain struck Arsenal's second-half equalizer, a drone — identified as a $1,300 Phantom 2 Vision Plus quadcopter — hovered over the 60,000-capacity stadium in time to capture the ball landing in the net. Arsenal officials could not say if anyone around the stadium knew of the drone in the night sky, but the club and Britain's Civil Aviation Authority are looking into the video.
The CAA is also looking into a video captured at Wembley last month of preparations for the London NFL game between the Miami Dolphins and the Oakland Raiders. Wembley Stadium officials said in a statement that they are "working closely with the police and other agencies in order to learn as much as we can on the use of drones to deter potential offenses."
The Belgrade episode ensured drones became a key issue in England at the Football Safety Officers' Association conference late last week.
"It was highlighted as being an emerging issue at sports grounds, with the use of drones at grounds increasing significantly in the last two years," Caroline Hale, head of communications at the Sports Grounds Safety Authority, said in an interview. "We are reminding clubs that it is worth looking at their contingency plans in light of possible increased use of drones over sports grounds and look at potential risks arriving from a drone accident."
The increased vigilance appeared to work on Saturday. A suspected drone pilot was arrested in a supermarket parking lot close to Manchester City's Etihad Stadium where the Premier League champions were hosting Tottenham.
An unidentified man was held on suspicion of breaching the air navigation order before being released on police bail. CAA rules prevent small unmanned surveillance aircraft being flown over or within 150 meters of any congested area.
Even if the drone pilots have benign motives, the devices could still endanger crowds on the ground.
"Even small drones can weigh up to seven or eight kilograms and could cause damage or injury if they fall from height," Great Manchester Police Chief Inspector Chris Hill said.
The proliferation of drones is presenting wider challenges, with the Department of Transport in London predicting an "explosion" in their use in the coming years. It said it receives a new application for their civilian use almost every day.
"People are becoming resourceful," Paul Cremin, the department's head of U.K. Aviation Security, told a House of Lords committee last week. "When the internet first came on the scene, people looked at different ways of using that technology, and we are now seeing that with RPAS (remotely piloted aircraft systems)."
Cremin highlighted the need for "sufficient controls to assure and reassure the general public."
Early next month, soccer officials will join police and government agencies to study the Belgrade incident and recent drone videos over stadiums to assess if more action is required to thwart a growing danger at sports venues. Hale, of the Sports Grounds Safety Authority, said the meeting will look at whether sports-specific drone guidance if necessary.
There are legitimate uses for drones in sport, with some football coaches using them to film overhead shots of practice to analyze technique. On the flip side, teams could snoop on rivals using them, although such spying would breach existing rules in the Premier League and NFL. At the World Cup in June, France coach Didier Deschamps feared a drone flew over his team's training, although no complaint was made to FIFA.
"We don't want an intrusion into our privacy," Deschamps was quoted as saying in Brazil. "But it's very hard to fight this these days."
YouTube videos over English stadiums: http://bit.ly/1sQTxGR
Rob Harris can be followed at www.twitter.com/RobHarris