There have been a number of press reports breathlessly announcing that, under a new FAA policy, it is now a crime to fly a UAS at a stadium on game day.  While we hate to let facts get in the way of a good headline, we thought we would point out that it has, in fact, been illegal to fly a UAS at a stadium for more than a decade.

These recent stories were prompted by the issuance of Notice to Airmen (“NOTAM”) No. FDC 4/3621.  This NOTAM states that the area surrounding stadiums hosting major sporting events are “National Defense Airspace.”  Any flight of an aircraft, including unmanned aircraft, within 3 nautical miles of a stadium and at an altitude of less than 3000 feet above-ground-level (“AGL”), is a crime under 49 U.S.C. § 46307, and is punishable by a fine and up to 1 year of imprisonment.

While this sounds like a significant development, it is nothing more than a clarification of existing law.  NOTAM 4/3621 is a replacement for NOTAM 9/5151, which had the same flight restrictions around stadiums and the same potential criminal penalty.  While it did not use the words “remote control aircraft,” the FAA has been clear that it always considered UASs to be aircraft, and, by default, were included in this restriction.  Moreover, the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 makes clear that model aircraft and UAS are types of aircraft, further backing up the FAA’s position.  In fact, it should be noted that one of the justifications given by the FAA for their refusal to permit the University of Michigan to fly the game ball into the stadium was the existence of the earlier NOTAM. As a result, this new NOTAM is nothing more than a clarification of existing law and policy.

The FAA’s policy is similar to the policy followed in other countries.  For example, just two weeks ago, a man was arrested for flying a UAS at Manchester City Stadium during a soccer match.  The UK Civil Aviation Authority announced they intended to prosecute the man for violating an Air Navigation Order which is similar to the FAA’s NOTAM.

People also seem to be forgetting that local law enforcement has taken a very dim view of UAS flights at sporting events, regardless of what the FAA’s position might have been.  So far this fall, a UAS pilot was detained for flying at the University of Texas Stadium, and another was arrested and charged with reckless endangerment for flying at the US Open.

While it is unfortunate that people seem to have been unaware of this long-standing flight restriction, the revised NOTAM seems to be having its intended effect.  Hopefully, this latest round of media attention will help to avoid future incidents.

So, if you want a bird’s eye view of the action, get a seat in the bleachers, and leave your UAS at home.

(Originally posted November 6, 2014)