Drone Advisory Council Calls for Sharp Reduction in TFRs Governing Major Sporting Events

A report by the prestigious 41-member Drone Advisory Council (DAC), which advises the FAA on Urban Air Mobility issues, is calling for a sharp reduction in the current airspace restrictions on drone flight near sports stadiums.  The 15-page report, released late last week, criticizes the current restrictions as unduly onerous and unrelated to the actual safety and security requirements for major sporting events.  Under current FAA rules, drones must abide by Temporary Flight Restrictions or TFRs that generally require aircraft to observe a 3-mile radius around sports stadiums several hours before and after ongoing sporting events.

Drone pilots are subject to criminal prosecution and stiff civil fines for violating the TFRs, which has occurred on several occasions to date.   The DAC notes that current flight rules amount to a total 125,000 square miles of airspace restricted annually – which the group claims has hampered drone flights that pose no threat to the safety of sports participants, fans or stadium infrastructure.  The DAC’s proposed cutback would reduce current TFR restrictions by almost 99% – to just 11 square miles.

The authors of the report note that the current “Stadium Notice to Airmen” or NOTAM was put in place after 9/11, to prevent future terrorist attacks by manned aircraft.  Over the years, drones and drone flights were simply folded in the NOTAM without taking into account their specific technologies, flight characteristics, risk profile and safety and performance record.  The report also notes that the current restrictions, even on their own terms, are highly consistent, allowing for unrestricted aircraft flights during pre-season but not regular or post-season NFL football games, and establishing different restrictions governing MLB baseball games.  The NOTAM also restricts flights over indoor stadiums even though relatively small drones by their nature pose virtually no safety or security risk when a stadium is covered and protected, compared to large commercial airliners or other manned aircraft.

The report notes that the growth rate of UAVs far surpasses that of manned aircraft and that drones and their flights will soon constitute the largest share of the National Air Space, further necessitating the need for rules that are drone-specific that also take into account the need for integrated airspace between manned and unnamed aircraft, in and around stadiums to ensure overall flight safety.

DAC’s proposed changes also include the maintenance of permanent digital data sets to enhance the visibility and management of all new flight restrictions, which will eliminate the need for real-time TFR updates tied to specific game times or other fluctuating factors.

DAC says its proposed system will “enhance safety, simplify compliance, and promote equity by aligning the restrictions with the actual risks associated with drone operations.  Moreover, the proposal supports the FAA’s mission of safely integrating drones into the national airspace, fostering innovation, and improving public safety through advanced aviation technologies.”

The group plans to work with the FAA, Congress, and other stakeholders from professional sports leagues to drone operators to implement these changes, “ensuring that our skies remain a realm of opportunity for all,” according to a DAC press release.

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