Man Who Stopped AFC Championship with Illegal Drone Charged by FBI

M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland -- aerial photo

The FBI has charged a 44-year-old Pennsylvania man with two felonies after the man allegedly flew a drone over M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland, during the AFC Championship Game between the Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs on January 28.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the man flew a DJI Mini 2 drone for about two minutes during the first quarter of the game before NFL security personnel determined the drone was a threat and stopped the game. During the short flight, the drone operator reportedly captured six photos and potentially a video clip.

“Illegally operating drones poses a significant security risk that will lead to federal charges,” says United States Attorney Erek L. Barron in a press release from the United States Attorney’s Office in the District of Maryland. “Temporary flight restrictions are always in place during large sporting events.”

“Operating a drone requires users to act responsibly and educate themselves on when and how to use them safely,” adds Acting Special Agent in Charge R. Joseph Rothrock of the FBI’s Baltimore Field Office. “The FBI would like to remind the public of the potential dangers of operating a drone in violation of federal laws and regulations. The reckless operation of a UAS in the vicinity of a large crowd can be dangerous to the public, as well as interfere with other law enforcement and security operations.”

Per an affidavit filed supporting the criminal complaint, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had enacted a temporary flight restriction (TFR) for M&T Bank Stadium during the AFC Championship. This prohibits unauthorized aircraft, including drones, from operating within three nautical miles of the stadium. The TFR went into effect one hour before the scheduled kickoff and expired an hour after the game concluded.

After the drone departed the stadium during the game, Maryland State Police troopers tracked it over the stadium and to its eventual landing site in the 500 block of South Sharp Street in Baltimore. FBI agents then assisted the troopers and questioned the alleged perpetrator.

The drone operator told police he had not registered his drone and didn’t have a Remote Pilot certificate. He also explained that he believed he could fly the drone over the stadium because the DJI app had not explicitly stopped him. On prior occasions, the app reportedly prevented the man from operating his drone, so he figured that there were no issues because the app didn’t stop him this time.

Drone operators in the United States should always check the FAA’s active list of TFRs before flying. While the FAA’s list may not always be comprehensive, it is at least helpful guidance.

If the drone operator is convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of three years in federal prison for “knowingly operating an unregistered UAS and for knowingly serving as an airman without an airman’s certificate” and up to a year for “willfully violating United States National Defense Airspace.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office says an initial appearance and arraignment is scheduled for later this month.

“Actual sentences for federal crimes are typically less than the maximum penalties. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after taking into account the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office adds.

A criminal complaint and charges are not a finding of guilt. The individual charged is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty in a court of law.

Image credits: Header photo licensed via Depositphotos.