On Sunday night, the Super Bowl might play host to a matchup between two high-flying acts that have nothing to do with football: drones and drone hunters. The Federal Bureau of Investigation said on Friday that security officials at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium are already “inundated” with drones, and the agency has confiscated at least six so far.
The Federal Aviation Administration’s temporary flight restriction around the stadium went into effect on Friday. It states that drones aren’t allowed within one nautical mile in all directions up to 1,000 feet. On game day, the restriction increases to 30 nautical miles and 17,999 feet.
The pilots could face “significant fine and/or jail time” for violating the temporary flight restriction, though no arrests have been made, according to Kevin Rowson, the public affairs specialist for the FBI’s Atlanta field office. (The fine can exceed $20,000, according to the FAA.) Information collected about the drones and the pilots has been referred to the US Attorney’s office, which is standard operating procedure, Rowson tells The Verge. He declined to say how the six drones were confiscated.
High-profile reports of drones violating restricted airspace have increased over the last few months — even though, in some cases, there’s still no hard evidence that drones were involved. Suspected drone sightings shut down Gatwick Airport, the UK’s second-largest airport, over the course of multiple days in December. Two suspects were arrested but released, and in the meantime, both Gatwick and London’s Heathrow airports have purchased anti-drone systems.
Drone sightings also briefly disrupted air traffic at Heathrow and Newark International Airport in January. The FAA was not able to confirm the drone’s existence in Newark, though. Scotland Yard has launched a full investigation into the Heathrow disruption, but no arrests have been made.
The FBI and the FAA will have some help monitoring the skies around the Super Bowl this weekend. A Bill Gates-funded startup called Echodyne has been tapped to test a new radar-based drone detection technology during the event, according to FCC filings dug up by The Guardian’s Mark Harris. Echodyne’s ground-based tech can detect and track flying objects, and it’s supposed to be able to help distinguish birds or anything else that could be mistaken for a drone. That could help cut down on potential false alarms.
Another company called Fortem Technologies has applied to test a different kind of drone-hunting solution at the Super Bowl, Harris reports. Fortem’s tech involves more radar detectors than Echodyne’s, but it also includes predatory drones. The company has equipped its own hexacopters with the ability to “detect, track and classify other drones” according to the filing, and — with permission from local authorities — chase them down and capture them with an onboard “net gun and tethering system.” (If approved, Fortem’s test would also likely happen under the supervision of the FBI and / or the FAA, according to a spokesperson for the company.)
Mercedes-Benz Stadium has a retractable roof, though the NFL hasn’t decided if the teams will play with it open or closed. “We are still watching the weather forecast for Sunday, and that’ll be the decision point,” NFL senior vice president Peter O’Reilly told the Boston Globe on Thursday. “I think it’s more likely that we’re closed.”
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