It came, it hovered, it left.
The remote-controlled aerial drone that soared over Fenway Park during last Thursday’s Red Sox game was probably just a bored teenager’s idea of a prank. If so, the fans had nothing to fear.
But it could have been much worse. Suppose there had been a bomb on board, or maybe a package of some toxic powder such as the drug fentanyl? Law enforcement and Red Sox security do not have many options to take out a threatening drone; in fact, attacking drones is against the law, even for the police.
Even so, the drone that buzzed Fenway during the late innings of the game against the Blue Jays was also illegal, on multiple levels. Drones aren’t allowed over crowds of people, over sports arenas during a game or within the restricted airspace of major airports, which rules out most of downtown Boston and adjacent neighborhoods.
Authorities eventually found and confiscated the drone and interviewed the pilot, whom Boston police would only describe as “a juvenile.” No charges have been filed yet, but since no harm was done, the perpetrator will likely get off with a stern warning from the Federal Aviation Administration, which enforces regulations of drones.
As a dry run for an actual threat, the drone event at Fenway, like others before it, exposed some serious weakness in local defenses. In 2017, a disgruntled drone pilot dropped leaflets into San Francisco’s Levi Stadium during a 49ers game. Also that year, a drone crashed into the stands at Petco Park during a San Diego Padres baseball game. And the FAA is hearing from about 100 pilots each month, complaining that they can see drones operating near their flight paths.
And because they cost so little, drones are also favored by militant groups. The terrorist group ISIS routinely used explosive drones in Syria and Iraq. In January, Houthi rebels in Yemen used an explosive drone to kill six loyalist troops during a parade. And in August, opponents of Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro went after him with two camera drones stuffed with plastic explosives while he was giving a speech during a military parade in Caracas. Maduro was not harmed, but seven soldiers were injured, and the explosions triggered panic among the spectators.
Even an unarmed drone can cause havoc in the wrong place. Last December, the UK’s second-largest airport, Gatwick, was shut for hours and more than 140,000 Christmas travelers were stranded when a drone hovered along the runways. The perpetrators have never been caught.
How long before the United States suffers a Gatwick incident of its own, or something much worse?
“We’ve seen it used in enough areas to give me real concern,” said David Inserra, policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “We need to worry about this now.”
Never mind drones bearing bombs or chemicals. Imagine a swarm of drones racing down an airport runway and flying into the engines of a plane as it takes off.
“A scenario like that wouldn’t require any new technologies that haven’t been invented yet,” said Arthur Holland Michel, codirector of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College. “It could happen tomorrow.”
There are companies developing technologies to defend against drone assaults. First, you’ve got to see them. A German company called Dedrone has a detection system that’s been installed at Citi Field, where the New York Mets play. It uses the drones’ own radio traffic to spot them and pinpoint the pilot’s location. The company even claims it can simultaneously track multiple incoming drones. All this information can be passed on to local police for further investigation.
But if a drone poses an immediate threat, it has to be neutralized and fast. Engineers worldwide are working on this problem. The Dutch firm Delft Dynamics has developed a drone that can take another drone captive by snaring it with a grappling cable. The Swiss company Droptec makes a pistol that fires a net capable of snaring a drone up to 90 feet away. The guns are carried by Swiss prison guards, as drones have become a popular way of smuggling contraband over the walls. The British company OpenWorks Engineering makes a longer-range turret-mounted net gun called Skywall.
US defense contractor IXI Technology offers Dronekiller, a point-and-shoot radio jammer that blocks the signals between the drone and its operator. When that happens, most commercial drones will automatically fly home. The Dronekiller can also trace the radio signal back to the drone’s launch point.
IXI’s director of business development, Andy Morabe, told me his company has sold Dronekillers to military and police agencies overseas. But he can’t sell Dronekillers to local police forces because targeting a drone is as illegal as flying one of them over the bleachers.
Drones are considered aircraft, and hijacking a plane is a federal crime. So is hacking a computer, like the ones inside the drone. And it’s illegal to jam the drone’s radio transmissions, too.
Congress has carved out exemptions for the Defense, Justice, Energy, and Homeland Security departments, so they can use antidrone systems such as Dronekiller to protect military bases, nuclear plants, and other sensitive targets, even baseball stadiums. But federal agents can’t be everywhere, and there’s no exemption for state and local law enforcement agencies.
So what will we do if Fenway is visited by a drone carrying something truly dangerous? Unless laws are changed and local police get the tools to fend it off, about all you’ll be able to do is change your seat.