New York State School Boards Association

NYSPHSAA bans drones at games

by Cathy Woodruff

On Board Online • June 12, 2017

By Cathy Woodruff
Senior Writer

Flying small unmanned aircraft commonly known as "drones" over sporting events now is officially prohibited under a policy recently enacted by the state's chief governing body for interscholastic high school sports.

The New York State Public High School Athletic Association approved the ban, which applies to games, scrimmages and all regular- and post-season interscholastic events, at a May 5 meeting of the association's executive committee.

The text of the new statewide policy provides an exhaustive list of facilities where the drones are not welcome, leaving little room for doubt about where the ban might apply.

"This prohibition applies to the area above and upon all spectator areas, fields of play, courts, arenas, stadiums, mats, gymnasiums, pools, practice facilities, parking areas or other property being utilized for the purpose of the interscholastic activity," the policy states. The document refers to drones by the acronym UAS (unmanned aircraft or aerial systems).

Some exceptions can be made for news media, law enforcement, public safety agencies or unspecified "other entities or individuals," but only through a prescribed process that includes obtaining consent of the host venue and NYSPHSAA's executive director.

NYSPHSAA's decision to enact a clear written policy on drone use is mainly a precautionary measure, rather than a response to any particular incidents at New York high school events, said Executive Director Robert Zayas. He said the ban reflects concern about potential injuries from wayward drones and a broad consensus among association members.

"We wanted to be pro-active before it becomes an issue or before it becomes a problem," Zayas said. "The main reason for enacting this is for the safety of student athletes and spectators and officials. There is no way for our school administrators to always know who is operating that drone or what their level of expertise is."

Nationally, drones have drawn occasional attention for disrupting professional and college sporting events.

The operator of a drone that crashed into an empty seating area at the National Tennis Center during the 2015 U.S. Open in Queens was arrested and charged with reckless endangerment, and a student was at the controls of a drone that crashed the same month at the University of Kentucky's Commonwealth Stadium during a pre-game celebration.

And at a California high school track meet, a drone dropped water balloons in the vicinity of athletes and spectators, according to a report that appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

Zayas said unauthorized drones have appeared at least three times at recent NYSPHSAA events, including cross-country, soccer and lacrosse championships last year. In each case, the drone operator complied with the organizer's request to land the aircraft, he said.

But not all drone enthusiasts may be as cooperative, Zayas said. As the use of drones has grown, so have concerns about the potential for injury or disruption if one of the small hovercrafts were to crash into people, or even trees or light posts during an athletic competition, he said.

NYPHSAA's statewide directive may overlap in some respects with existing Federal Aviation Administration regulations, such as FAA rules restricting drone flights over crowds.

A March 2016 analysis by the National School Boards Association's Council of School Attorneys reported that the FAA sent a cease-and-desist letter to a North Carolina high school where a drone was being deployed to capture aerial video at football games. The FAA cited its prohibition against operating drones above "large gatherings of people."

The North Carolina High School Athletic Association pointed to that incident when it banned all use of drones at its events two years ago.

While the FAA has claimed top authority for regulating unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) use throughout the U.S., Zayas noted that NYSPHSAA can claim undisputed authority for regulating photography and the capturing of video images at its athletic events. Taking pictures is a common purpose cited by those who seek to deploy drones during sports competitions.

NYSPHSAA's rules governing media coverage and spectator photography at its events include a ban on any camera equipment on the field of play, Zayas said, and "that line of restriction extends up, vertically, to infinity."

Zayas suggested that the statewide directive also may provide a helpful backup for local school districts that want to restrict drone use, and he said it should provide an alternative to crafting local policies that could form an inconsistent patchwork throughout the state.

Under the new policy, officials may suspend play until a drone is removed from the area, refuse admission to anyone operating or attempting to operate a drone or request immediate removal of a drone operator.

"I think it's a good policy, and I think it's protective of the best interests of athletes and spectators," said Fallsburg Superintendent Ivan Katz, who serves on NYSPHSAA's Section 9 Athletic Council. "I think that safety has got to be job concern number one, and I think that is the impetus behind this drone policy."

The full text of the NYSHSAA drone policy is available here: goo.gl/byxeww .


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