Drones and National Parks

Drones and National Parks

Some of the most attractive and stunning drone footage comes from natural environments. You’ve probably seen it one form or another: a slow pan over the ocean, the serene top of an enormous mountain, tracking along with birds. Any decent drone pilot with an affinity for the outdoors lusts after this type of terrain, and often the most aesthetically pleasing locations are the closest national parks. All of this begs the question: with all the new regulations instituted by the NPS (National Park Service), are drones allowed to fly in that airspace? The answer is No. Here’s why.

There are just under 60 national parks in the USA and the NPS is responsible for each and every one of them. Recently, the NPS instituted a temporary ban on all drone activity within national park areas. This ban isn’t an ultimatum, as many sources explain that the NPS simply put a hold on things in order to further explore the issues and determine the outcome. They will need a yes or no, or a set of rules, whatever that may look like, that preserves the park space, while they deliberate, we drone pilots are not legally allowed to fly in national park airspace.

First, drones can be a huge distraction. Think of it this way, you are someone who loves nature and wildlife and hiking. You set out to have a day at the nearest national park with your friends or family, and you long for that peaceful, quiet, serene immersion into nature. Suddenly you hear a rather abrasive buzzing; you look up and see a machine hovering overhead. To the outdoors enthusiast, this disturbs the hoped-for experience. Many of the issues surrounding the drone ban come from these types of complaints. National Parks are revered for isolation, quietude, and phenomenal views. They are devoid of ‘city life’ infrastructure and noises.  In a way, bringing drones into that serene picture resembles snowmobiling on a cross-country trail, or jet-skiing on a peaceful lake designed for sailboats.

Second, they are incredibly disruptive. You are out there to be ‘at one with nature’ and immerse yourself in the natural sounds of the forest and wildlife. A big loud flying piece of machinery will disrupt that. At the very least, that chirpy swarm of birds you’ve been following on your trail will flee when a drone passes by. At the very worst, the drone hits bird nest (or a human – but that’s a whole different situation). Because of their robust and invasive nature (by default, since drones are designed to explore places out of our reach), they disrupt the very ecosystem park visitors have come to enjoy. This, of course, is an issue. Can one drone pilot looking for pretty aerial footage disrupt the collective experience of the many people who are enjoying glorious land-based sounds and views?

Third, without proper regulation, drones can be dangerous. Plain and simple. There are a lot of wanderers walking around national parks. What would happen if a drone were to fail on one of them? Or if a drone were to hit a tree and spin out? Due to the structure of these national parks, the airspace is like a minefield for drones.  They are harder to navigate than open land and that only magnifies the risk of crashing. Trees, foliage, park memorials added to numerous people walking about could be recipe for disaster. The headline: drone crashes in national park and lands on visitor would be a game-changer for the drone community; more and more places would begin to institute bans (our next point).

It doesn’t end with national parks; unfortunately, as individual state parks are beginning to follow the national lead to ban drones. Logically, state parks are more likely to ban drones since they are smaller and more available to local visitors. The risk of a drone disrupting visitors only increases.

The point: don’t fly your drones in national parks… yet. Although the temporary ban is very much in place, the NPS has not declared all drones an unwanted evil. In fact, drones flown by enterprise pilots for industrial applications are still permitted (fire safety, search & rescue, scientific research, etc.). There may be some way of segregating park visitors and drone without declaring a total ban.  We should wait and see how the issues play out.  The NPS is tasked with a very difficult issue: how do they allow drones to be flown in park airspace and not detract from the value of the park itself? How do they ensure the safety of their guests? Time will tell.


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