Drones are coming: PNC Park’s aerial visitor is a warning for the future

The drone over a Pirates game at PNC Parks shows the need for new laws

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On the night of June 26, Pirates fans saw in the fifth inning their rising star, Gregory Polanco, hit his first home run in PNC Park. In the eighth inning, they saw something else flying above the field and it wasn’t a baseball. It was a drone.

Other drones reportedly have flown near the ballpark, but the flight of this one was very public and very much noticed, so much so that the Federal Aviation Administration launched an investigation.

The FAA was right to take it seriously. At the time, the episode appeared to be innocent and it probably was. Pirates officials noticed the drone and asked police to find the operator and ask him to stop. The operator turned out to be a man on the ballpark’s Riverwalk and he quickly complied.

But the greater concern is not so much what happened that night when no harm was done, but what might happen in the future. The temptation is to dismiss this incident as just some hobbyist having fun with the modern-day equivalent of a model airplane. To be sure, the small drone that flew over PNC Park isn’t the sort that roams over Iraq and Afghanistan.

That doesn’t mean that the potential for something bad doesn’t fly with this sort of domestic drone. It takes little imagination to figure out how a small drone could be used to cause great harm. There’s also the chance that such a remote-controlled vehicle could accidentally plunge into the crowd.

That night featured fireworks after the game and the stadium was nearly full, with more than 36,000 fans in attendance. They all had been checked by security upon entry, but it took just one drone to mock all those precautions. What can be done?

As Post-Gazette reporters found, the FAA — after 9/11 — established airspace restrictions for most aircraft (including drones, the FAA says) within 3,000 feet or 3 nautical miles of major sporting stadiums. Drones might be covered by trespassing laws, but when they invade airspace and not property the issue is not clear.

What this episode shows is that the law has not kept pace with technology. New laws addressing drones are needed and, in drafting them, lawmakers at all levels should be mindful that aircraft also have legitimate uses — for recreational purposes, for gauging security, for news gathering, for inspecting infrastructure and so on.

That PNC Park drone was like the first swallow of summer. The drones are coming. The only question is whether we are prepared.

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