Despite danger, big events don't ban drones

St. Petersburg, Florida -- Despite the danger of drones crashing onto people below, we found major events and sports teams all over Tampa Bay have no policy at all to stop drones from hovering over their crowds.

This weekend's big event, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, is likely the first major special event in Tampa Bay to specifically ban drones with the backing of a special law by the City Council.

It's easy to see why. The Internet is full of hundreds of videos that show drones, out of control, smashing into the ground after barely missing people.

Sometimes they don't miss. Here a remote-controlled drone crashes into the crowd at an event in Virginia. Here a triathlete is cut open by a drone that had been filming her.

A remote-controlled drone, blades spinning, whizzed over the heads of people along the Gasparilla parade route this year. People started pelting it with beads and the pilot barely got it down without crashing.

I asked the Tampa Police Department about creating a no-drone zone for next year's Gasparilla. A spokeswoman said it's not in their plans.

Tampa's signature pirate festival is one of a dozen significant events and organizations I checked with that told me drones are not something they're planning for.

No future planning for drones at Gasparilla, the Florida State Fairgrounds, the Valspar Championship golf tournament, the Tampa Bay Rays' spring training ballpark, and the Tampa Bay Lightning's outdoor plaza at Amalie Arena.

That's according to security planners and spokespeople for those groups.

Also not working on the issue of local legal power to stop drones? The school districts in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando, Polk, Manatee, and Sarasota counties.

Those big sports teams and events, huge outdoor venues, and school districts are not planning for the inevitable: hobbyists like this one in Texas who sent a drone soaring up over a high school football stadium with hundreds of people down below.

The Federal Aviation Administration does have some regulations about who can fly drones, where, and when. And there are restrictions, especially around large pro sports events. But they are routinely ignored, and they're difficult to enforce.

"[The FAA's] regulations would have required officers to document everything that happened and then turn it over to the FAA. Whereas now, we've got the ability to deal with it locally," the City of St. Petersburg's Chris Ballestra said.

For those reasons and more, Ballestra and his staff asked the St. Pete City Council to enact a new ordinance around the Grand Prix.

During this race weekend, police can stop anyone flying a drone within 200 feet of the track and file local misdemeanor charges against them.

With Indy cars zipping along the streets of St. Petersburg at more than 100 miles per hour, a wayward drone "could be catastrophic," Ballestra said.

"You've got a mix of the public, as well as the protection of the drivers and teams. We've got fuel being dispensed. We've got a Coast Guard helicopter flyover, in fact. We're not going to take a risk with any of that."


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