If You're Flying a Drone in a National Park Without a Permit, You're Hurting the Industry

If You're Flying a Drone in a National Park Without a Permit, You're Hurting the Industry

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.

The Laws

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.

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Leigh Miller's picture

Doesn't help when media reports egregious behaviour that has little to do with drones...but make sure to include images of drones: https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2017/03/20/toronto-photographer-accused...

marknie's picture

I agree, the leftist biased media is horrible. This website also leans to the left in a disgusting way...

I'm not a fan of left wing biased media either but I'm failing to see any connection to the post you are responding to and this article. This fstoppers article is objectively written.

Leigh, you and Mark need to come out into the light of the real world and confront reality. YOU are fake news.

Patrick Hall's picture

This is really frustrating to us. We are currently in a bunch of national parks in Utah and everything is a no fly zone. When we talk with park rangers, they tell us the ban isn't so much about safety as much as it is about tourists complaining they are being spied on.

Perhaps the safest place in the world to fly a drone is in a national park where there are very few people and if you do crash, depending on the park, you are most likely to hit a rock cliff and not damage anything. As we travel, it's been very clear that actual human hiking is way more disturbing to the parks than any drone flying would be. I'm reminded back to when we couldn't fly a drone in Ankor Wat yet 1000s of tourists can literally climb on the structures day in and day out.

What I think the parks should do is just require a $200-$300 fee upon entering the park for a drone pass. Maybe even require the FAA permit too. Just make it easier to get permission while also deterring the average joe who doesn't feel like paying a reasonable fee. In the end, we are having to fly our drone outside the actual park to get footage that looks like park footage but also flying over areas that probably have a denser population than the inaccessible cliffs and mountains within the actual park.

As for Mike's suggestions about licensing stock footage, we are planning on doing that too but...I'd be willing to bet a lot of that footage is 1) illegally obtained too and 2) probably not as profession as the footage we could film ourselves.

In the end, I think this is a law that needs to be amended. The park in Moab says you can fly a drone nov - feb but not the rest of the year. It all seems so randomly thought out. Sure flying a drone might take away from the natural experience but IMO it isn't any worse than the countless motor homes, large groups of Chinese tourists, mountain bikers, campers, and selfie pole takers. Just make the fee reasonable but high enough to deter the general public and allow our most beautiful locations to be filmed and shared around the world. End of rant :)

Mark Richardson's picture

I was recently at Dead Horse Point State park in Moab, Ut and was delighted see that they allow drone flights with a $10 fee. Simple paperwork recorded my FAA registration number and that was it. I'd love for there to be a $200-$300 fee in the National Parks, or even just require the Part 107 license. Anyone who has their Part 107 is likely serious enough not to cause problems.

Yes on the fee, but the fee needs to go back into maintaining the park.

Patrick Hall's picture

You must have been there nov -feb because they said no flying at all during march. :/

Mark Richardson's picture

That's right - I remember now they said you can only do it during the "off season."

Andrea Re Depaolini's picture

I agree with the fee solution, usually money are the only language people understand. I would also add a fairly high limit on the number of permits in the summer months.

Have to strongly disagree. I don't want yahoos flying drones around when I'm in the National Forest. I loved that there were none. Every event I go to where I live has people flying drones around, and it's a nuisance. And I fly one myself.

I also think you and the OP miss the point of the permits. It's not for average drone fliers, when I saw that, I immediately assumed it would be for the likes of National Geographic, BBC filming Planet Earth, etc. Drop your feelings of entitlement.

Leigh Miller's picture

We have our issues up here too: https://www.canada.ca/en/transport-canada/news/2017/03/new_safety_rulesf...

So being an American transplant I have to put up with the BS on both sides of the border...now virtually impossible to fly even at my cottage where most days I'm the only one in the area.

Tony Northrup's picture

The national park ban (and state park ban, in most states) is especially ironic because the photography of artists like Ansel Adams was largely responsible for the creation of the national park system. Parks exist to be enjoyed and appreciated, and banning cameras solely because they happen to fly is ridiculous. If Ansel Adams were alive today, you can bet he'd have a drone with him.

Safety: it's already illegal to fly drones over people's heads. Also, despite the large numbers of drones in use, there are really very few instances of people being injured. Certainly, the numbers pale in comparison to people injured swimming, hiking, and climbing, all of which are legal in parks.

Noise: Lots of noisy things are legal in parks (screaming kids, lawnmowers, radios, Harleys)... but if noise is really the issue, make the rule that you can't fly drones where the noise can be heard by others. That would allow us to fly at odd times when people aren't around, or in secluded places.

Spying: This is ridiculous; people are already in a public place, and someone with a telephoto lens would do a much better job of spying than a drone with a wide-angle.

I do like Patrick's idea of having fee-based permits, though I'd hate to restrict an artform to wealthy individuals and businesses. But parks could hand out a limited number of permits on a first-come basis.

Patrick Hall's picture

Maybe they should base the fee on commercial vs private usage. If you know you might sell the footage or are there for a commercial project, require the $300 fee. If you are just having fun then maybe the fee is $30. If you wind up selling the footage, you should have a NPS license scan to go along with it. Pretty simple

Stas Aleksandersson's picture

DJI could offer virtual no-fly fences in parks where the drone's software wouldn't allow the drone to fly in a restricted area. They could make a feature of unlocking the fence with the park's permission. Seems like they could make a lot of $ with that.

Mike Wilkinson's picture

Thanks for chiming in Tony. I like your idea of a limited number of passes, maybe for rec users? To me I think the NPS should try to work with drone ops, rather than dismiss them. Special permits with fees, perhaps a top-level vetting process to get a license to apply; meaning you get a background check, provide flight records, answer some questions, and get in the system on a national level. Once approved there, you can apply locally for first-come first served or other type of paid permitting. It's also an obvious opportunity for the NPS to make money, which I think they could certainly use.

Yeah, Ansel Adams, who was hired by the NPS to do a job. He'd probably receive a permit.

I agree with following the rules. The rules to be followed should be reasonable though. In the article you state, "The NPS has every right to ban drones on their property, forever"...

See, now that is the problem. NPS, and other government-agency types THINK and ACT LIKE it's their property. It is not. It belongs to every citizen of the USA, including those who wish to fly drones. The rules should respect that fact as well.

"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."

It's not "thier property." It is the property of the American people.

The NPS should simply have a limited number of permits at any given time with a reasonable fee, with a small number being allotted to foreign tourists.

People getting hit with a huge fine as a first offense is also ridiculous. The saying that ignorance of the law is no excuse is a bunch of crap in a society riddled with regulation and where you often need the advice of a lawyer to do things.

Interesting situation. The only way this hassle and $$ fine outcome occurred was because this drone guy admitted guilt upfront to the park ranger on a random phone call. From YouTube comments: "Basically since I did not know about the restriction I was naive and accidentally entrapped myself on the phone. If I told them I did what you described they would have had no way to prove otherwise." [referencing drone takeoff/land is illegal, but okay to fly in from outside the border - although I don't think this is a valid loophole.]

These park rangers just scan youtube for videos, then do their best to make contact and fine flyers.

During last trip to Yellowstone national park, I have seen more dumb drivers speeding, putting wildlife at risk. At one occasion this group got too close to black beer despite clear rules to keep safe distance from wildlife. Before banning drones, they should figure out how to keep these types of idiots outside the parks. Responsible drone pilots should be given chance to fly.

Michael Yearout's picture

I don't fee sorry for him. Claiming he didn't know about the ban on drones in national parks. What, has he been living under a rock? His whole attitude in the video seems "poor me" I didn't know I was doing anything wrong so I should get off with a warning.

Aaron Priest's picture

It's not just parks that NPS has put a ban on. I discovered that drones are also banned "within sight and sound of Appalachian Trail visitors", even on private property with landowner permission. That's a very broad definition! How far can they be seen or heard, what's the actual distance? 1000ft? A mile? It's even stupider when the same trail is a snowmobile trail in the winter.

Mike Wilkinson's picture

Interesting! I can't see how that can be enforced by law. The FAA owns the airspace, and the AT goes over lots of different properties, so this sounds like a scare tactic to me. Do you have a link to something that explains this?

I'm with you this! NPS can make any "rule" they want. Enforcing it would be quite difficult. I do believe the FAA has already slapped the NPS down for trying to say drones can't fly over National Parks. That's why they changed the wording to "operate on or in NPS property".

I'm the type of guy who would launch across the street and fly right over the ranger station (as long as I can see the drone, of course)

As much as I like flying my drone, I would rather go and enjoy a national park without the sky full of them. I'm not the only one going there to enjoy the landscape and so respect other people wish to enjoy them without me flying and creating a nuisance. There are plenty of other places that you can go fly a drone and capture some amazing scenery in the US, I think it's completely legit to allow for the NPS to run a no fly zone policy over the parks. A limited number permit system (maybe five a day between 11am-2pm) with a decent fee $300-$500 and part 107 requirement would be a decent option if they were to introduce a system though I think. That way you could control numbers but still offer the opportunity to those needing/wanting to capture footage or photo work and create a revenue stream for the parks. I think most folk (non drone pilots) who visit national parks would appreciate limits as well.

Aaron Miller's picture

I think that fee structure far too onerous considering an FAA certified drone pilot has already jumped through more hoops to take the exam and secure liability insurance unlike recreational flyers. If anything it should be the reverse, with recreational operators paying a high fee with limited flight time and radius/height maximums while commercial operators are offered a less expensive fee and more generous flight options b/c we've done our diligence. My feeling is that it should cost no more than $25-30 per park with a defined flight plan that includes an emergency protocol, a promise not to harass or approach wildlife, and perhaps a license agreement which allows the Park Service to use content for marketing purposes.

Nick Jense's picture

Well said Mike! I just got my 107 and have several clients in my local pretty rural class E to surface. I've been trying to get a COA for our local airspace. It's been over a month since I contacted the FAA by the portal and email without even a response or verification that my email and submission went through. The website says it did, but no email verification and no response. I know our local airport's manager pretty good and could easily get permission to safely fly my flights. But I haven't flown in our airspace yet because I am trying to follow the FAA rules. When I don't even get a response and see tons of other businesses and hobbyists flying in our airspace without any penalties and local viral posts... makes me wonder why I even follow the rules. It seems as if they don't really matter or moreso, just don't have the resources to follow up on their rules...

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