MPA Bars Drone Use at its Sponsored Athletic Events

By Ernie Clark, Bangor Daily News

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Principals’ Association has joined a growing number of state organizations around the country that have adopted prohibitions on unmanned aerial systems, more commonly known as drones, at their athletic events.

The Maine Principals’ Association general membership approved at its recent spring conference a policy that prohibits the use of drones at its sponsored events, such as championship games in all varsity sports.

The lone exception under the policy would involve media use, but the association would have to give prior approval, Maine Principals’ Association Assistant Executive Director Mike Burnham said.

Several factors played into the development of a drone policy, including competitive balance, safety, security and privacy.

“This is for equity on the playing field because they can be very expensive and some communities can afford them and others can’t, as well as for looking out for the safety, security and well-being of the athletes and the spectators,” Burnham said.

The idea for the Maine Principals’ Association’s drone policy originated with its football committee and the potential use of such small aircraft as a scouting tool.

“One of the athletic directors had a concern about the use of drones and equitable conditions, basically saying that if one team had [access to] a drone it could give them an advantage over other teams in terms of planning, preparation and in-game stuff,” said Paul Bickford, assistant principal at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School of South Paris and chair of the association’s football committee.

Burnham and the football committee subsequently researched other drone policies already enacted at the high school and collegiate levels..

“It originated as a concern about competitive advantage but really morphed over the last few months,” Bickford said. “As we looked deeper it was certainly also much more about the idea that having one crash and burn into a bunch of people would not be good, as well as what [drones] can pick up in terms of being a violation of privacy.

“We’re implementing it because it’s one of those things we’re trying to get ahead of before it becomes an issue,” he said

The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association has the following policy regarding unmanned aerial systems:

“Unless granted special permission by the MIAA Executive Director, the use of drones (UAS), for any purpose, is not permitted at any MIAA tournament event. This prohibition applies to all fields of play, courts, arena, mats, gym floor or pool, and covers a ban on the entire facility being used as part of the MIAA event, including the spectator stands and parking areas.”

Other state high school athletic associations, including those in Iowa and Minnesota, have enacted similar policies that prohibit or limit the use of drones at athletic events, while many colleges and universities also have established guidelines for their use.

Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for example, developed its drone policy in 2015.

That policy says, in part:

“Systems may not be operated in populated areas or near large groups of people (such as sporting events, concerts, festivals). They may not be flown anywhere on the Baton Rouge main campus on football game days. The (Federal Aviation Administration) prohibits all flight activity within three (3) nautical miles of a sporting event stadium having a seating capacity greater than 30,000 people one hour prior to an NCAA event through one hour after conclusion.”

The University of Maine System, meanwhile, reviews requests for drone use on its property on a case-by-case basis and then only permits uses that are authorized by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration for specific educational and research purposes, according to University of Maine spokeswoman Margaret Nagle.

“It’s not every day you sit back and think about how drones are going to impact things like this,” Bickford said. “But when you think about it, it’s kind of a new technology and is becoming more and more easily accessible so we could certainly see the impact as far as competitive balance goes if one group had it and another didn’t. Then there were also those other factors that they’ve considered at the collegiate level.”

The Maine Principals’ Association’s drone policy does not cover regular-season high school activities, but Bickford said individual schools and conferences are encouraged to develop policies to cover those events.

Thornton Academy of Saco recently authored a drone policy for its facilities, according to athletic administrator Gary Stevens.

“One day we had a tennis match and a baseball practice going on at the same time and someone was [nearby] with one and kept coming over near where our tennis courts were,” he said. “I was afraid because what would happen if it crashes? Somebody could get hurt.

“So we actually have a policy where he couldn’t do that on our property now without written authorization. If a teacher wanted to do a demonstration on some kind of aircraft, they could do that … but would have to have our director of security and associate head of school sign off. You have to have expressed written permission.”

This story appears through a media partnership with the Bangor Daily News.