After someone pointed out that the FAA’s Stadium TFR is not active during NFL preseason games, I decided this was going to be one of my only chances to get an aerial photograph I always wanted. (actually NOTAM
As a Drone pilot living in Denver, CO, I love our skyline. And I love shooting it. Depending on where you’re shooting from, you have a variety of subjects. From the East you have the Rocky Mountains in the background. From the South you can get the Capital. And from the West, you can get Broncos Stadium at Mile High. And it’s that Western view I’ve always wanted to get. And I’ve wanted to get it from a drone, at night, with the skyline and stadium nicely lit up with cooperative weather.
For me to get that shot, it has to be during a preseason game, at sunset, when the Colorado Rockies are also not playing. That same NOTAM also applies to Coors Field, because Mile High is close enough to Coors for the either NOTAM to affect both venues at the same time. So no Rockies’ game can’t be going on either. So on the night of 8/19, all of the stars aligned and I was given a chance to get the shot I wanted.
As a Drone Pilot who tries their best to follow the rules, I put the question out in one of the forums to get some input on whether I was reading the NOTAM right. I got corroboration from people I trust. I then checked with Flight Services (1-800-WXBRIEF), and they checked with Skyvector. All said I was clear to fly. And at [5:00], when a TFR would go into effect, I checked the FAA TFR site one more time to be sure. Still all clear.
As a matter of fact, the only resource that showed an active TFR for the game was Airmap. Yet another mistake, in the long list of mistakes by them. So I gave myself and my VO, Todd Pierson, the green light to fly, packed the DJI
Mavic 2 Pro (my go-to drone these days) in the Yukon, and off we went.
But first, I had the presence of mind to print off 6 copies of NOTAM 7/4319, and highlight the parts of that NOTAM showing we can legally fly during NFL preseason games. I put those in my flight bag.
The next challenge was finding parking. We didn’t want to get there until about an hour after game time, so the usual areas were full. Todd knew of a spot, so we parked about 6 blocks away and walked.
Everything was good so far. We knew that flying from any property owned by Mile High Stadium was off-limits, so we asked if we could fly from an adjacent parking lot. We were told no, so we decided to fly from a sidewalk, which we knew was legal. We wanted a parking lot to be away from crowds. Obviously, that would have been the safest route. But that ended up not being an option.
Instead, we powered up on the grass near a sidewalk, obtained GPS and home lock, waited for a clearing in the crowds, moved the M2P to the sidewalk and lifted off. This is probably a good time to mention that I knew Mile High runs a DJI Aeroscope drone detection system. So I was pretty sure someone would come pay us a visit, hence the printing of copies of the NOTAM.
So, we lifted off, immediately flew over to the parking lot for safety, and double-checked my telemetry as always. Everything looked good so I went up to 400’ to start shooting. About 5 minutes later it got interesting. Todd and I noticed a guy in a golf cart headed our way, so we knew he was looking for us. We were not trying to hide. We were wearing our Hi-Vis vests, and had the case and flight kit sitting on the ground next to us. And let’s face it; if you’re flying a drone, it’s pretty obvious already.
So, the gentleman comes up, I introduce myself and shake his hand, and he politely said we needed to land our drone. When I (politely) asked why, he said it was NFL policy. Todd handed him a copy of the NOTAM, and I mentioned (also politely) that actually it’s an FAA policy, however, it doesn’t apply to preseason games. I also
mentioned that I would be happy to talk with him about it, but since I was flying I wanted to land first. However, I wanted to get some more photos first. He seemed happy with that response.
He then radioed and told whoever was on the other end of the coms that I had a piece of paper that said I could fly. He then asked me to land again, which I did. Once I landed he asked for my ID and for us to take the battery out of the drone. Removing the battery was a strange request, but we complied. No problem. He took photos of my ID (I have no problem with that), and photos of the Mavic’s serial number and registration number (which I have on the outside). And about that time, two of Denver’s finest (Police Officers) also showed up. We gave them a copy of the NOTAM and explained the preseason rules as well. Then the second officer asked if he could have a copy for his records. He hadn’t seen it before.
Everything was going fine, there was no tension, but I just wanted to get back up to shoot some more. They said I needed to wait for head NFL security for Mile High. Again, no problem. He showed up about 2 minutes later, I shook his hand and introduced myself. I started to give him a copy of the NOTAM and explain it didn’t apply to preseason games, but he said he all knew that already. He just wanted to come out and make sure everything was in order, and I was following FAA regulations.
It was very refreshing to have someone show up who was familiar with the rules. We came to a compromise about me not flying over any of the stadium property, including parking lots. He agreed that he technically couldn’t stop me, but he was worried that if I got too close stadium, someone would see it (I was running strobes, again for visibility, I didn’t want to appear to be hiding) and there would be a panic. It’s very unlikely that would happen, but it’s a possibility. So I took off again, and put the drone up over the buildings just next to the parking lot. It was a very good location, if not ideal.
While I was flying, Todd and I noticed that the guy in the golf cart and the NFL security guy stayed around and were on the phone. Apparently, the FBI got involved at that point. Security wanted to confirm everything with them. Just as I was about done, a black SUV pulls up. And out pops the FBI. That’s when things got interesting.
Introductions were made and the FBI agent started to explain things to me. When it was obvious I knew the rules, and was being safe, his demeanor changed for the better. His original tone can be easily explained by the fact that I was the first drone operator they’ve contacted during Broncos games that had my poop in a group, was educated in the rules, and was flying legally and safely.
They also mentioned that about 1 in 10 people they contact actually have their drones registered. And when confronted, are clueless that they even needed to. That bothered me quite a bit.
One thing lead to another, and the agent, head of security, and myself, spent about 15 minutes talking about the different regulations, Aeroscope (the stadium loves theirs), and new regs coming down the pipe. And amazingly enough, they also brought up that if there was more enforcement, their jobs would be easier.
I’d like to reiterate again that this is an FBI Agent and the NFL Head of Security bringing up the lack of enforcement by the DOJ and DOTOIG. And they want to see more. I did not bring up enforcement. The agent and I both know the area LEAP agent, and that he has way too much area to cover. They do not blame the FAA for this.
Another outcome of last night is that I now have the contact info for the local head of NFL security, and the contact info for the FBI. And the NFL security just said to let him know if I want to fly again for the next home preseason game. He’ll pass it down the ranks to let everyone know it’s just me.
And, I asked them to pass along my contact info to the people they come across who don’t know the rules. After all, it’s up to all of us to help educate the new drone owners. It’s in our best interest to do that (nicely). They loved that idea.
So what could I have done better? I really should have given them more than one day’s notice that I was going to fly. When I told them I emailed the stadium the day before, they laughed. They asked if I really knew how many emails the stadium got every day, much less the weekend before a game. I really didn’t consider that. 3 or 4 day’s notice is best (more is better). And only count actual business days, not weekends. Other than that, they said everything else I did was perfect. They all appreciated the copy of the NOTAM.
So what is the take away from last night that I can pass along? Be prepared. And be cordial. Make sure you know what you’re doing, and be 100% prepared to nicely explain the rules to whoever shows up. Because odds are you’re the most educated person in that entire situation. It was VERY refreshing to have two of the 5 responding
security folks to know the actual rules. But based on stories I routinely hear, that is for from the norm.
Be ready to de-escalate the situation if necessary. And don’t push your point. In reality, if they want you to land, just land. Even pack up and call it a day if necessary. The agent even pointed out that although he can’t enforce the FAA’s rules, he can most certainly confiscate your equipment and start a criminal investigation into the flight. And who wants that? The attitude of the drone operator is usually the determining factor of the outcome of the situation.
I missed what I thought would be my perfect light last night while all of this was going on. I didn’t get the sunset I wanted. But I should have planned things a bit better and showed up earlier. I’ll take fault for that. If you show up early enough, you have a chance for all of the concerns to be addressed and you can get back up in the air in time. And to be fully transparent, I think the later shots turned out better anyway. So in this case, there was no loss.
I hope my experience from last night can be helpful to all drone operators and responding enforcement folks. If everyone keeps a cool head, and things remain friendly, we all win. Fly safe, have fun, and make awesome imagery!
Moss Photography/Drone U
Vic Moss is a commercial photographer with over 30 years experience. He is also a national voice for drone safety and reasonable drone regulation. Vic has worked with numerous cities and states to help craft drone regulations that don’t inhibit safe and responsible drone use. Vic is also a FAASTeam member and one of three UAS specialists in the Denver FSDO Service Area. As a frequent contributor in many UAS forums, Vic keeps tabs on the pulse of all things UAS. Vic’s duties as a co-owner of Drone U include photography instruction, legislative liaison, and Elite pilot instructor. Vic was recently appointed to the FAA’s Drone Advisory Committee Waiver Task Group. You can get in touch with Vic by emailing him at [email protected]
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