During the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, more than 1200 drones assembled in the sky to form the Olympic rings. A show not just of artistic merit, but one demonstrating the prevalence and permanence of drones working alongside large events and mass gatherings. Aside from aerial displays, the importance of drones at these types of events cannot be understated. Spotting crowd issues or illegal activities, providing eyes in places which the security on the ground can’t reach all in an instant – drones offer surround sound support for what can be a messy situation to keep control of. There also have been memorable incidents where the crafts themselves cause or exacerbate precarious situations. A balance must be found in order to optimize the benefits of drones at large events, while reducing inadvertent or intended problematic consequences. 

Interaction with crowds

Invariably, having a bird’s-eye view of a live event, with the additional advantages of sensors and cameras which can isolate a target on the ground, helps consolidate the surveillance capabilities at events with large crowds and many moving pieces. Consider the scenario of someone collapsing in the middle of the audience during a music concert. Extended periods waiting for an emergency response can lead to other audience members taking matters into their own hands – this could at the least be ineffective and ill-advised, and at worst result in panic and mayhem.

A drone quickly alerting the relevant medical teams as to the exact location of an injury or casualty will control the fallout of a critical situation. Similarly with overcrowding – it is generally a lack of immediate awareness of where there is an inflation of people in one area which leads to tragedy. A live conveyance of this information from a drone can disperse a particularly saturated part of a stadium for instance and prevent a stampede or crush. A drone can reach areas where CCTV or staff cannot, this is imperative for seamless handling of emerging issues.

The flipside of the coin is unauthorized drones navigating the skies to conduct their own surveillance of an event below. The purpose of these illegal flights could range from simple ignorance or careless piloting all the way to aggressive interventions. Taking pictures, or filming an event violates personal privacy, copyright and theft laws as well as triggering security protocols that may see an event curtailed if concerns aren’t relieved. More poignantly, in a soccer match in 2014 between Serbia and Albania, two countries with hostility towards each other, a provocative depiction of the founder of the modern Albanian state attached to a drone flying over the stadium caused the game to be called off due to escalating tensions in the crowd. Drones can monitor activity, transmit situation analyses and take breath-taking photos, but they can also whip up thousands of spectators with a controversial politicized gesture.

Incident response

Beyond the surveillance benefits of drones, the ability to communicate key information gathered from the analysis to medical or security teams is a game-changer. A scenario involving gunshots into a crowd which inevitably causes pandemonium, requires astute observation and rapid response. Drones can inform security and law enforcement how many active shooters there are, where they are located, where they are heading and where there are casualties. Drone involvement significantly increases the chances of successful medical assistance as well as smooth evacuation of vast groups of people. Drones can distinguish between gunfire and explosions and support inspections or criminal pursuits, with live updates on a suspect’s movements, either through audio or video feeds built into its platform.

Along with preventing or subverting attacks, drones can likewise be the vessels of violence if commandeered by criminals or those with malicious intentions.  Sticking with the soccer theme, Isis threatened to carry out terrorist activity at the 2018 World Cup in Russia claiming, “we have drones, we’re scouting out locations and we’ll attack.” Meanwhile in the English Premier League, a report by the Football Safety Officer’s Association was conducted into the menace drones pose to matches, which stated that concerns related to dangerous drone use included terrorism or a loss of power or visibility of the drone could cause harm to players on the pitch or spectators. The latter fear was realized at a Muse Concert in the O2 Arena in London when a drone simulating a spacecraft plunged into the audience. People or property don’t need to be harmed for an incident to cause damage. Delays in performances or cancellations, unplanned evacuations and financial losses are all very likely results of a suspicious drone sighting or interference at an event.

Maximizing the benefit of drones

Drones do the heavy-lifting for security and medical teams on the ground, and drones can provide invaluable support at large, often unwieldly events. When they are misused, or mistakes are made or unauthorized drones are left to roam above a stadium unfettered, this is when protocols need rethinking, regulations need tightening and counter-drone solutions need deploying. Employing technology to detect and nullify illegal drone activity should be a priority for organizers of large events and stadium operators, in order to ensure authorized drones can do their jobs and audiences can enjoy the spectacle without any liberties being infringed. Drones can be a double-edged sword, but when treated with caution and care and tempered by counter-technology, there is no doubt they should be an integral part of the security architecture for large gatherings and stadiums in the future.