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Drone over Camp Randall Stadium

A drone flies over Camp Randall Stadium between the third and fourth quarters of a football game last October.

The suspect is described as white with four small propellers and a GoPro camera. Was last seen Saturday afternoon hovering high above thousands of jumping college students at Camp Randall Stadium.

UW-Madison police are working with federal aviation officials to identify the pilot of the unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, seen at Saturday’s football game against Illinois. No officers saw it, but the department received a report about it, Lt. Ruth Ewing said.

University athletics officials said they didn’t hear any reports of the drone from fans, possibly because it came and went during the “Jump Around” between the third and fourth quarters, when most in the stadium are dancing to the House of Pain song.

The drone sighting comes after similar incidents at football stadiums in other parts of the country this season.

The Federal Aviation Administration has taken a hard line against drones in stadiums, thwarting a planned drone delivery of a football before a game at the University of Michigan’s stadium and sharply reprimanding photographers who flew drones without permission during a college game in Tennessee and an NFL preseason game in North Carolina. FAA officials in Chicago did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.

The drone’s pilot still had not been identified Monday night. According to FAA regulations, airspace above the stadium is a no-fly zone from an hour before kickoff until an hour after the final whistle. The federal provision, put in place after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, extends 3 miles around and 4,000 feet above the stadium. No one asked for or received permission for an exception, Ewing said.

The FAA is working on updating its guidelines regarding drones. It’s widely accepted among drone users and regulators that they should not be flown over crowds of people.

In January, the Academy of Model Aeronautics updated its safety guidelines, specifying that “all pilots shall avoid flying directly over unprotected people, vessels, vehicles or structures and shall avoid endangerment of life and property of others.” In June, the FAA followed suit, banning drone flights near airports or crowds.

FAA guidelines also specify that drones be flown only in full view of their pilots on the ground. It appears that such a view would not have been possible since the drone crossed into the airspace above the stadium before crossing out of it, likely obscuring the pilot’s view of it. An antenna attached to the drone, identified by enthusiasts as a DJI Phantom quadcopter model, is equipped to provide a drone’s-eye view of the flight to the pilot.

David Parfitt, a UW-Madison graduate and creative director at Fitted Films in Chicago, flew a drone up and around Camp Randall Stadium earlier this fall when it was empty, with permission from the university, he said. He posted video of the flight online and was not paid for the job. He was surprised to hear of the game-day flight.

“I don’t think you should be flying over crowded areas, especially without the permission of the university,” he said.

State Journal photographer Michael P. King took a photograph of the phantom flyer, the only evidence known to exist so far. Ewing said UW police officials are also reviewing surveillance camera footage at the stadium but wouldn’t comment further, citing an active investigation.

King said the drone hovered above the student section in the stadium’s northeast end during “Jump Around” then flew northwest to the north end of the stadium before dropping out of sight beyond the stadium’s outer walls. In the immediate vicinity are two possible landing spots: a parking lot for the engineering building and an empty field.

Drones’ popularity has exploded in recent years both among hobbyists and professional photographers. Madison Area Technical College recently offered a class on building and flying drones, responding to strong interest by local businesses in exploring the technology’s possibilities for a variety of tasks. UW-Madison has offered at least one drone photography class, as well.

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