Illegal flights persist despite national park drone ban

Early season drone reports are outpacing the number of incidents last year.

 

In Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, the Gros Ventre Campground is a peaceful place with abundant solitude; it hardly fills up, even during peak season. On June 22 last year, that normal silence broke as the plastic wings of an unmanned aircraft system, known colloquially as a drone, spastically chopped at the leaves of a cottonwood as it tangled in the branches. A cow moose was grazing nearby, and though there was no evidence that the operator was trying to get a closer look at the unsuspecting ungulate, “it does seem a likely scenario,” says Andrew White, the park’s spokesman.

National parks temporarily banned drones in June 2014, when park officials began to worry that the devices could crash into sensitive landmarks, disturb wildlife, and present safety risks and general disturbance to visitors. Yet despite the ban, the number of drone incidents, like that one at Gros Ventre Campground, has increased. Park officials around the West say the ban has been difficult to enforce and in many parks, the early season drone reports are outpacing the number of incidents last year.

Even with a drone ban in place, hobbyists are still flying in some Western parks.
Paige Blankenbuehler
In Grand Teton, there have been 11 reports of drones flying within park boundaries, so far (up from six last year), and rangers have issued four citations. Almost all of Grand Teton’s 2014 incidents happened between July and September, and White says as visitor numbers continue to grow, he expects more reports this summer.

In Yellowstone National Park, it’s been harder for rangers to patrol for illegal drone flights because there’s more ground to cover; it has 90 percent more acreage than Grand Teton. So far this year, Yellowstone has issued two citations, compared to five last year. But most of those were in July, "and we're only half-way through the month," says Traci Weaver, a spokeswoman for Yellowstone. 

Beyond the national parks ban, the Federal Aviation Administration is trying to get a handle on drone usage. It proposed rules in February for hobbyists, including: no flights more than 400 feet high, after dark, or within dangerous proximity to people; pilots must keep drones within their line of sight. Airspace in most national parks is designated FAA territory, so a person could theoretically stand outside of park boundaries and fly over or into the park — if they keep the drone within sight.

Final FAA regulations are still in the works. For now, if park officials want to use the devices for park purposes, such as wildlife tracking and topographic mapping, they have to get explicit FAA permission. That's because they would be piloting them from within the park boundaries, whereas a visitor standing outside and flying in isn't breaking any rules. 

Part of the reason incidents are increasing is that many people just don’t know about the ban in national parks, White says. They're simply trying to get cool videos or photographs, or are avid model-aircraft builders, says Rich Hanson, director of public relations for the Academy of Model Aeronautics, a group for model plane and hobby drone enthusiasts. In most parks, rangers have adopted a solicitous approach. They respond to sightings (usually called in by other visitors or park employees), then try to find the pilots once the machine is on the ground, and gently inform them of the ban. Most hobbyists have been receptive to it. Citations range from $1,500 to $5,000 and are only issued when drone operators have “noncompliant attitudes,” or if the incident is especially egregious — like the drone that crashed in Yellowstone’s iconic, technicolored Grand Prismatic hot spring last August.  In waters as deep as 120 feet, the drone was never recovered.

The 2014 ban has some drone supporters crying foul. “We think it's a bit of a knee-jerk reaction,” Hanson says. “National parks should allow — in a limited capacity — people to use this new technology.”  

That technology — affordable (as cheap as $300 for the basics), usually with a high-definition camera attached — is flying off the shelves. The Consumer Electronics Sales and Forecast report predicted as many as 400,000 hobby drones will sell across the country this year, and total sales could reach $130 million. Hanson says he thinks the upward trend will continue only if there are more flyer-friendly rules. “If people are buying this technology and finding that they can't fly them anywhere," he says, "they are going to put them back on the shelves." 

Paige Blankenbuehler is an editorial intern at High Country News.