A drone flying over a football scrimmage between Ocean City High School and Middle Township High School interrupted play for about 20 minutes on Monday evening.
Parents and spectators watching the game reported the small remote-controlled device flying close to the field then moving back and forth in an apparent attempt to buzz by different players during the delay in the game.
The referees reportedly would not let players throw a ball at the drone to knock it out of the air.
Ocean City police received an anonymous call reporting the incident, according to Capt. Steve Ang. But by the time they arrived the drone was gone, and its operator was nowhere to be found.
“I’ve been coaching football for 20 years and never had that happen,” Ocean City varsity coach Kevin Smith said.
He said officials have been instructed to stop games when drones are present, in part, because video from drones could provide an advantage to other teams. But Smith said he and the Middle Township coach agreed that was not a concern.
“If anybody’s scouting us, we don’t mind,” Smith told referees.
He said the incident raised greater concerns about safety, privacy and security.
“It’s just an uncomfortable thing to have this person operating this craft over your field,” he said.
Smith’s uneasiness echoed that of parents watching the game.
Jamie Levai, whose son plays on the team, said the drone was flying over her daughter’s cheerleading practice earlier in the day.
“Who knows what they recorded from a team of cheerleaders all under the age of 18?” Levai said. “This is crossing the line.”
“My concern is not only the privacy of our children but our time also,” she said. “It was unfair to everyone there that we could do nothing about it.”
“That thing hovered closely over our kids and both sets of bleachers for a long time,” Heidi Alfano-Kern said.
Recreational drones — small and light battery-operated devices that typically include multiple helicopter-shaped rotors — are increasingly common sights. They cost anywhere from $100 to $5,000 with high-priced models carrying more sophisticated cameras and flying for longer periods of time over greater range.
A sample $800 model can stay aloft for 25 minutes on a single battery charge and has a range of 500 meters from the remote controller, though operators must remain in sight of the device to guide it. The owner of the drone that buzzed the Ocean City game could have been controlling it from one of the homes overlooking the field.
Federal Aviation Administration guidelines prohibit recreational operators from flying their devices higher than 400 feet and ask them to seek permission if they fly anywhere within three miles of an airport.
But beyond the FAA guidelines, there’s little in the law to govern the relatively new devices.
Ang said police potentially could rely on traditional harassment or private property laws in future drone cases. But it’s uncharted territory for the department.
“These are things that are going to have to be thrown against the wall (to see what sticks),” Ang said of different types of instances when drones become nuisances 0r dangers.
“It’s going to become a bigger problem as they become cheaper and easier to purchase,” Ang said. “It’s not going to go away.”
In a case involving similarly unregulated new technology, Ocean City in 2011 passed a local ordinance prohibiting the possession or sale of any laser pointer that exceeds one milliwatt in output power. The laser pointers had been directed at pilots flying planes, motorists driving cars, visitors riding Ferris wheels and even people sitting in their homes.
A Lower Township man was indicted Tuesday for allegedly blasting a drone out of the sky near his home with a shotgun. Russell Percenti, 33, faces charges of possession of a firearm for an unlawful purpose and criminal mischief, according to Cape May County Prosecutor Robert L. Taylor.
The drone owner told investigators he was using it to capture photographs of his friend’s house, which was under construction.
At Wednesday’s Ocean City Board of Education meeting, Sea Isle City representative Dan Tumolo said he was at the Monday’s football game in Ocean City and witnessed the drone incident.
He told the board he had a later conversation with the Cape May County prosecutor. He told the board that Taylor advised anybody witnessing a similar incident to call police immediately.
Even if the legal landscape is murky, police can intervene to scare off the drone operator and to potentially track the drone to its owner.