As Drones Swoop Above Skies, Thrill-Seeking Stunts Elicit Safety Concerns

Amateur photographers and Hollywood filmmakers turn to them for lush overhead shots. Geologists use them to look above the seas for oil-bearing rocks. Amazon executives are pushing to use them to plop packages onto doorsteps.

But now drones – the unmanned flying vehicles the size of a pizza box – are also a favorite tool for more unruly groups: pranksters and troublemakers.

As the price of drones has fallen and sales have risen, the machines have emerged as central characters in stunts from the puckish to the criminal. In recent months, drone pilots have tried to smuggle contraband into prisons and disrupt sporting events at stadiums. Animal rights groups have turned to drones to stalk hunters as the hunters stalk wildlife. And in France, more than a dozen illegal flights over nuclear power plants have unnerved the authorities.

The antics are forcing public safety officials to look at the air above them, generally thought safe and secure, as a place for potential trouble. And for groups pushing drones as legitimate business tools, the string of high jinks are an unexpected and unwelcome headache – one, they fear, that will bolster a push by regulators to keep a tight leash on the machines.

The Federal Aviation Administration has said that drones raise safety concerns, like running into people and planes. On Wednesday, the agency said it receives about 25 reports a month of drones operating near manned aircraft. The agency is expected to propose new rules for commercial use as early as next month.

“It’s now in the hands of all types of people – good people, bad people, tricksters, pranksters, kids,” said Patrick Egan, a consultant on commercial drone projects and editor at sUAS News, a drone news site. “All hell is going to break loose as far as the shenanigans that are perpetrated with drones.”

For the most part, flying a drone is legal for recreational purposes, as long as operators follow a few guidelines, like staying below 400 feet. Declining prices – a four-rotor model with a mounted camera can cost as little as $500 – have attracted more buyers. Teal Group, an aerospace research firm, estimates the global civilian drone market to be worth $450 million this year, up 45 percent from last year.

The machines now regularly make mundane appearances at parks and weddings, often to supply overhead photography. As the number of drones has grown, though, so has the impishness of some owners. The rise of online video and social media has motivated some operators to outdo one another.

About a year ago, Tom Mabe, a comedian in Louisville, Kentucky, came up with a Halloween prank that used a drone to scare people with a grim reaper, rigging the mannequin to the drone with fishing lines. The video, showing terrified people in a park, has generated more than 7 million views on YouTube.

“I’m hoping I’ll be the drone comic,” said Mabe, who pulled another drone prank this Halloween.

Outdoor sporting events, which offer open-air environments with large audiences, have become a particularly hot target. In October, a soccer match in Belgrade between the Serbian and Albanian national teams was paralyzed when someone hovered a drone over the field that held a flag for Greater Albania, a charged symbol for many in the stadium.

A Serbian player yanked down the flag, which led to a scuffle among the players and rioting by fans.

Drones have also buzzed British professional soccer matches and U.S. college football games. In August, a student from the University of Texas at Austin, was arrested after piloting a drone over the school’s stadium, which was filled with 93,000 fans. The student is facing possible charges, according to the university police.

With security concerns mounting among stadium operators, the FAA recently updated a policy originally created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The policy now explicitly prohibits drones from flying near major sporting events.

Commercial use of drones is also largely prohibited in the United States, largely because of the perceived risks of unleashing swarms of them into the skies. A few Hollywood film companies have a rare exception to the rule. The FAA is expected to propose rules requiring that commercial operators maintain visual contact with drones and undergo a certification.

The FAA frequently receives reports of drones operating where they are not supposed to be, often close to airports. According to records released Wednesday, the agency received half a dozen reports since February of drones flying over or near stadiums in Arizona, Pennsylvania and other states. On Oct. 14, a drone operating at a low altitude over Daytona Beach Municipal Stadium in Florida struck someone, causing a “mild abrasion,” the agency report said.

Brendan M. Schulman, a lawyer in New York who represents commercial clients interested in using drones, said the mischief comes from a few people and should not overshadow the legitimate use of drones.

“It’s important for us to balance those two things,” he said, “and not curtail it just because we see a handful of people doing things that are objectionable.”

Last year, drones became a potential tool in an age-old dispute. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals began offering a $325 PETA-branded drone, promoting it as a way to record illegal hunting. James Rodgers, a director of innovation at the organization, said it had sold “dozens” of the drones, which he said should not be used to interfere with lawful hunting.

But some say the buzzing sound of the drones is a disturbance. Nick Pinizzotto, chief executive of the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance, a hunter lobbying group, said he had heard from hunters in New York that a drone was used to scare off their ducks.

“They always talk about, ‘We’re not trying to interrupt hunting; we’re just trying to find bad guys,’?” Pinizzotto said. “To PETA, everybody who hunts is a bad guy.”

Law enforcement agencies around the country have bought drones to inspect suspicious packages and conduct surveillance, a move that has raised privacy concerns. But now the authorities are finding that drones can be used against them, too.

In April, a drone crashed trying to airlift a payload of cellphones, marijuana and tobacco over the walls of a maximum-security prison, the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, South Carolina.

One man was arrested in the case, and authorities are looking for another. They are unsure whether drone operators made earlier undetected drops.

Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington who studies drones, said the troublemaking should come as no surprise.

“It would be the rare technology,” Calo said, “that some people didn’t abuse.”

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