The FAA gets a case study with a drone crash inside an MLB stadium

PSA: Flying your drone over a baseball stadium with tens of thousands of fans is a really, really bad (and probably illegal) idea.

Yesterday someone flew their drone (which appears to be a GoPro Karma) into Petco Park, the stadium belonging to the San Diego Padres, an MLB team. And yes, it was during a game, so of course the event was captured on camera.

What’s even worse is that after hovering for a few minutes, the drone crashed right into fans sitting in the upper deck.

If you watch the video you’ll see that the drone didn’t just fall out of the sky — it maneuvered sideways directly into a spectator. While it’s not clear if this was done intentionally or by accident due to a loss in signal or connection, it’s notable that the drone didn’t just suddenly drop straight down, which would be a much stronger indicator that the drone malfunctioned (or suffered from the battery connection issue that some pre-recall GoPro Karma drones did).

The MLB itself prohibits anyone from flying drones over a stadium without prior approval. In addition, the Federal Aviation Administration restricts flight of any aircraft (including drones) below 3,000 feet within a three-mile radius of all sporting event stadiums with seating capacity of more than 30,000 people.

Because the drone crashed and the stadium was able to obtain it, they should theoretically be able to turn it over to authorities, who can identify (and hold accountable) whoever the drone is registered to.

But there’s one issue — last week, a federal appeals court ruled that the FAA’s drone registration requirement is unconstitutional, because the FAA has a mandate to not “promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft.”

The registration program was enacted in 2015 to help track drones back to their owners, so when occurrences like this happen the authorities can recover the drone, read the serial number on the side and find the person accountable.

While the registration program wasn’t particularly burdensome, and was supported by major players in the drone space like DJI and The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a rule is a rule. Meaning if Congress enacted a mandate restricting the FAA from issuing rules related to model aircrafts, there’s nothing the FAA can do about it.

Of course this doesn’t mean that drone flying is now a free-for-all. The FAA’s no-fly zones still apply regardless of any registration, and there’s a chance that congress could pass a new law directly implementing a drone registration program, or alter the FAA’s mandate to allow them to promulgate their own drone-related rules.

And of course incidents like what happened at Petco Park only bolster the FAA’s argument that drones need to be registered so owners can be held accountable for their actions… especially when that action is flying a drone above tens of thousands of people.