Federal Aviation Administration investigating drone over PNC Park

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There have been a lot of airborne objects soaring over PNC Park through the years, but one on Thursday has sparked a federal investigation.

The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating the appearance of an unmanned drone hovering over PNC Park during a game between the Pirates and the New York Mets, the organization announced Friday. The drone drew a lot of attention from fans, made an appearance on the Root Sports broadcast and ended its flight after police intervention.

When Pirates officials noticed the object during the eighth inning, they asked Pittsburgh Police officers on site to find the operator and ask him to cease and desist operations. Pirates spokesman Brian Warecki said the operator was a man on the Riverwalk who quickly complied.

Pittsburgh Public Safety spokeswoman Sonya Toler said she had no information about the amateur pilot.

“There are a lot of reasons why you can’t do that,” Mr. Warecki said Friday.

After the 9/​11 terrorist attacks, the FAA established airspace restrictions within 3,000 feet and 3 nautical miles of major sporting venues, including Major League Baseball stadiums. Though some aircrafts — including emergency helicopters, military flights and commercial planes taking off or landing near an airport are immune from those rules; unmanned drones are not, according to the FAA.

Safety was the baseball team’s biggest concern. If the device malfunctioned, it could have crashed into a player on the field or into the stands, where nearly 37,000 people took in the Pirates’ 5-2 victory. At a stadium where fans are screened upon entry, the appearance of an unidentified flying object might also elicit fears of nefarious activity.

Many drones are equipped with still and video cameras, and unauthorized content would violate Major League Baseball and team rules.

Fans without tickets are denied entry to the ballpark, and flying objects without clearance are denied the same privilege.

“It’s all property rights,” Mr. Warecki said.

But sorting out the legal implications could be complicated.

If actual property can be found in violation of property laws, someone should inform the state, said Downtown-based criminal defense attorney Bernard Tully. He said language in state trespassing laws specifically addresses people entering spaces or buildings without authorization but makes no mention of objects, flying or otherwise.

He said police could potentially charge drone operators with trespassing if they fly above properties they’re told to stay away from, but prosecuting them would be a tough sell.

“In a close reading of what the actual statute says, trespassing is the act of someone physically entering a space or building without authorization. Here we’re dealing with something flying in a zone above a building. That provision would have to be added by the Legislature if we’re going to deal with that issue,” Mr. Tully said.

The FAA does not require approval for a hobbyist’s use of what it calls “unmanned aircraft systems,” yet there are certain regulations that operators must follow, according to an FAA spokeswoman.

The FAA mandates all unmanned aircraft must operate within 400 feet of the ground and away from airports and air traffic. This drone met those rules, but the FAA also has a rule against operating such aircraft in a “careless or reckless manner,” which could apply in this situation.

“Airspace is strictly controlled,” said Mr. Warecki of the Pirates.

For all the control the FAA has over the highest points of airspace, laws become somewhat clouded when it comes to low-flying objects, according to Micah Rosa, owner of Allentown-based digital marketing firm Shoutside Media.

Mr. Rosa, who doubles as organizer for the Pittsburgh Drone Masters Meetup Group, said he and his fellow enthusiasts believe federal laws only give the FAA control over the skies 400 feet and higher, disqualifying drones from their jurisdiction.

The FAA’s “Mythbuster” site debunks this view, saying it controls the skies from “the ground up.” However, in March, a National Transportation Safety Board judge agreed laws were unclear and dismissed a $10,000 fine against an amateur drone enthusiast, saying there was “no enforceable FAA rule” that applied to the man’s aircraft. The FAA appealed that decision in April.

Mr. Rosa said he supports the FAA’s attempt to curb bad actors, but failed attempts to create rules over the past three years are holding back small business owners seeking to capitalize off drone technology. He said Shoutside’s use of drones for aerial photography has helped it attract clients from across the country, and small business owners shouldn’t have to wait until laws are solidified in 2015 to see similar success.

“A lot of people point fingers but don’t understand that the federal government doesn’t move as fast as we do in business,” he said. “Drone operators should be respectful, stay away from private property, not do anything dangerous and when the government does speak out, listen.

”We’re hoping those rules will be in place soon, but in the meantime, if someone says there’s a job out there for us, we’re going to investigate that job.”

Mr. Rosa said Thursday’s flight wasn’t the first to hover near PNC Park and shouldn’t be the last. He said he spotted a drone taking aerial pictures near PNC Park about three weeks ago and applauded the effort. Noting the benefits of using drones for business and public safety purposes, he encouraged Pittsburgh residents and stakeholders to take a similar stance.

“Pittsburgh is a recovering city that has a great chance. We’ve gotten over the loss of the steel industry ... this is a great chance to reestablish ourselves. If we reestablish ourselves a drone-friendly city, the jobs will come,” he said.

Pirates fan Kelsey Gundel first spotted the drone flying over the Allegheny River after Gregory Polanco hit a three-run homer in the fifth inning. She was excited, having heard about drones in the past but never having seen one.

Two young boys sitting behind Ms. Gundel in the upper deck started yelling, “UFO! UFO!” before their parents corrected them.

She quickly whipped out her phone and captured the drone on video. Her video, posted to social media site Vine, shows the drone hovering over the ballpark before hurriedly zipping back toward the Riverwalk.

“A lot of people noticed the drone and made a comment, but they were more excited about the Pirates and Polanco’s hit,” said Ms. Gundel, a 21-year-old Chartiers Valley graduate who is a student at Hofstra University.

“Only in Pittsburgh.”

Michael Sanserino: msanserino@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1969 or on Twitter @msanserino. Deborah M. Todd: dtodd@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1652 or on Twitter @deborahtodd.


Video via Vine.

Michael Sanserino: msanserino@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1969. Deborah M. Todd: dtodd@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1652. First Published June 27, 2014 12:00 AM

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