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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Previous comments
Mike Wilkinson's picture

Thanks for reading Nick. I would definitely agree that the FAA seems to not follow through on enforcing certain rules, like flying for money without a remote pilot license. However, the NPS does seems to follow through sometimes.

As for trying to fly in your local airspace, try going to the local/regional airport in your area, and seeing if you can meet some folks in person, or make some phone calls to have them point you in the right direction of the person who can give you the permissions you need?

I hear your pain. It was pretty close to 6 months before I got my COA to fly in Class C. The system is super slow and it's painful to be the one following the rules when you see others operate and you know they aren't legal.

Stas Aleksandersson's picture

Seems to be a difficult issue. Another issue is publishing photos of people, trademarks, cars and any kind of copyright things. The rules are that you can only publish photos with the permission but no one bothers to follow. Seems unfair that drones are so hated by others.
In Germany for example it's illegal to take photos without person's permission. However it's clear that very few people follow this law because what are you gonna do against that?!

Stas Aleksandersson's picture

National parks could just buy a virtual no-fly fence around the park where the drone's software wouldn't allow it to fly over the park.

Eric Bowles's picture

I was in Arches last week and a couple of guys got ticketed for flying a drone through Turret Arch and North Window. It was pretty flagrant and there must have been 100 people around.

ISA AYDIN's picture

I think the problem is with the law which prohibits people flying in national parks. Those parks are the most beautiful places on the earth. I am really interested what can Phantom or Mavic or even inspire do wrong to national park? Can phantom damage the park? What's wrong. If this is a business then they should just set a fee for permit which can be purchased online like a license for hunting and fishing. Cause otherwise those who have "close relations" with park management easily get the permit and become famous but all other people are left in a shadow. It's just unfair! For safety it would be better if people fly in national parks rather than over cities.

Aaron Miller's picture

I live in the Adirondack Park and the rules and regulations around the "forever wild" ethic which governs the park are confusing to say the least, and I really worry that an outright ban of UAV's is imminent. To me such bans are ill-considered and ill-advised because they take an adversarial approach to a technology which has the capacity to deliver an impactful wilderness experience to those who might not have immediate access to those areas. There is environmental, artistic, and educational value to the imagery captured by drones which delivers an entirely new perspective of wilderness and, I believe, deepens the value we as citizens place on our incredible natural world.

As an avid hiker it's not as if I'm experiencing wilderness from afar by toggling a controller - I'm trekking miles into the woods, up muddy boulder strewn mountains, forging swollen rivers, and just so happen to enjoy taking out my drone for 15 minutes and getting some amazing footage, then sharing it online with friends. For me it's both an artistic act and an act of posterity the same as Ansel Adams, Nathan Farb, and any other legion of natural photographers have done before me. More significantly, while drones can be noisy, they also keep people from trampling over delicate flora and fragile ground because they're flying cameras. Bootprints on lichen and moss which might have taken decades to grow are, for me, a far worse impact on wilderness than the noise a drone makes for a few minutes.

That said, I do think there should be limits and areas which are no-fly zones...absolutely...but that should be a matter of PUBLIC discussion, not simply decrees sent down from on high. I also think that a fee-based permitting system (perhaps an annual quota?) is far preferable to bans, though it's my belief that persons with Part 107 certification and liability insurance should move to the front of the line. The sooner reasonable rules are put in place the sooner bad actors can be limited and weeded out because those of us who either make a living doing this or just appreciate the privilege to fly in rare beautiful places will act as ambassadors for this growing art-meets-tech form.

It's one thing to prohibit drones on National Parks and Monuments (although strong restrictions would be better). It's the fact that this prohibition applies to all National Park Service properties, including National Recreation Areas (which are intended more as places to have fun rather than being pristine natural wonders and in addition generally lacking cultural significance), that bothers me. Apparently drones are more of a peril than speedboats zipping around. The justification statement in the Lake Roosevelt NRA Compendium (I'm not sure if it is the same at other places) is so over-the-top as to be ridiculous as well. There is still plenty of National Forest and state DNR property up here in PNW (although designated Wilderness Areas are technically off-limits to drones (in addition to all motorized conveyances).

In National Forests it is legal to hunt animals but illegal to harass them (!)

The "law", as the article states, only covers activity inside national parks. An operator can legally park outside the entrance of a national park and fly all over that place as long as they follow the FAA rules, not NPS.

NPS does not control the airspace above their parks. That's the job of the FAA and NPS already got their hand slapped for trying to say drones can't be in their airspace.

The larger parks are easier to enforce because most commercial drones can't get very far into the park. Smaller parks, however, there isn't anything unlawful about flying in that area... just operate outside NPS property, stay VLOS and check for any restrictions on a sectional.

I love how this article made it seem like flying over a National Park is illegal. It's not, if you do it right.

The prohibition for all drones in national parks reminds me of the prohibition on alcohol, it will probably have the same results.
If you’re camping on the south side of Lake Powell there’s a good chance there’s no one within a mile of you ...and it’s against the law to fly your drone up 30 feet to take a video of you and your camp. At the same time somebody could be running their motorcycle all over the hills tearing them up and bothering people.
History says people will continue to break the law as long as it’s not a rational law. And there will always be dicks doing something people don’t like.