The National Park Service in the United States is one of the few organizations to have made clear policies regarding the use of drones, or small unmanned aircraft systems (SUAS) on their property. Yet some people continue to ignore these rules, and it’s only going to make things harder for the rest of us if this trend continues.
Some folks still are unaware of the policies and ignorant to risks that they take when operating a drone in a restricted area. In this article, I won't bother to share the countless times there have been accidental crashes or other blunders (there are many articles on Fstoppers alone covering these events) but I will go in to detail on what the rules clearly state. Furthermore, I'm going to call out the pilots out there who continue to ignore these laws and illustrate why their mistakes could possibly create problems for the many responsible, licensed remote pilots that eventually want to fly in the parks.
In case you’re one of the few who aren't familiar with the laws that are in place, and have been since June of 2014, here’s a refresher:
Launching, landing, or operating an unmanned aircraft from or on lands and waters administered by the National Park Service within the boundaries of [insert name of park] is prohibited except as approved in writing by the superintendent.
It’s really as simple as that, but if you’d like to read the entire memorandum, here it is.
This policy was created with the intention of it being temporary, but it’s hard to say when an updated set of rules will come out.
What Happens If You Ignore the Drone Ban
According to this LA Times article, a pilot could be fined up to $5,000 and get up to six months of jail time if caught breaking the drone rules. Here's a video of someone who was fined around $1,000 for posting a video of flying (he wasn't even caught in the act) in a National Park, telling his story:
Sorry he had to go though all of that, but ignorantia juris non excusat or ignorantia legis neminem excusat, or, if you don't read Latin, ignorance of the law does not excuse you from it.
Being prosecuted for violating federal law is one thing, but I feel that there are two bigger issues at play here. First, crashing a drone into a unique, national treasure would suck. Don’t be that guy. Or any of these people for that matter. If your shot is really that important, then buy stock footage, hire a helicopter, or fly a balloon. Drones are getting more and more reliable, but it still doesn't take much to crash one, and there are plenty of reports (and I've personally experienced this as well) of pilots having their drones go rogue and become completely unresponsive to user input for no apparent reason. So if even if you're a skilled pilot, things can still happen out of your control, and you will be held accountable. Like Uncle Ben said, "With great power comes great responsibility. Don't be a douche," or something like that.
The second issue is the stigma that is going to be created over time, as this happens more and more. How reasonable do you expect the NPS to be when it comes to providing permits to licensed, responsible pilots with commercial requests, when all they deal with are these joe-blows thinking the rules don’t apply to them? These people are hurting the commercial drone industry, and ultimately making it harder for the rest of us.
If you are that joe-blow, please put down the RC and fly somewhere else, or get a permit. Yes, your videos and photos get all kinds of likes on Facebook because they are beautiful and unique, but every time you think the rules don’t apply to you and you fly in a National Park, you’re giving the finger to everyone else and basically being a giant douche. Come on bro, get it together! People see your work, and it only further encourages this unlawful behavior by others.
Chances are that mostly responsible pilots will be the ones bothering to read this article. But, you might know the exact kind of people I’m speaking to. If you have someone in your networks who might be making some shady decisions regarding flying in National Parks, please share this article with them. If they want to be a professional, they should act like it. We’ll have a stronger case to push for an easy permitting process if we obey the laws and work together, not against each other.
What About Permits?
Supposedly you can get a “Special Use Permit” from high up in the Park Service, but so far I haven’t been able to find reports of anyone who has actually been able to get one specifically for this purpose. In the video below (jump to about 6:00) hear about Drone U's experience when trying to apply for a permit.
So I'll also suggest that the NPS is at fault here too. By not putting a system in place that allows people to apply for and receive permits, it's no wonder drone users feel like they should just go fly anyway. So in a way, they are bringing this onto themselves, but again, it's only going to hurt the drone pilot user group. The NPS has every right to ban drones on their property, forever, so the sooner we start showing them how responsible we actually are, the better.
The National Park Service as an Example for Other Areas?
Being the first organization to really set these kind of restrictions into place, it's not hard to imagine seeing others follow suit in the future. State Parks, National Forest Land, and other areas that drone pilots might currently be able to operate in, could become restricted in the future. If the NPS comes down hard on drone pilots, it wouldn't surprise me to see that mirrored in other areas at all.
It’s hard to say what an updated policy will look like, or when that will even be released, but I feel pretty strongly that the more people break the current rules, the harder the NPS is going to make it to get permits to fly.
All of this said, there are a few ways to capture stills and even video from an aerial perspective in a National Park that are completely legal, and the NPS (at least who I've spoken to) is completely aware of how this can be done. That will have to be the subject of a future article though. For now, do you disagree or agree with my thoughts here? Feel free to comment below with what you think of drone pilots who break the rules and fly in National Parks, and where you see things going in the coming years.