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Scofflaws Piloting Drones In The National Park System

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This drone pilot claimed not to know his hobby was illegal inside Golden Gate National Recreation Area/Kurt Repanshek

How can someone spend anywhere from $500 to $3,000 for a drone, drive to the Marin Headlands portion of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, walk several hundred yards from the parking lot along with dozens of other visitors, commence to flying his drone on the trail to the Point Bonita Lighthouse, and claim not to know he was in a national park?

Ignornace is bliss? Nah, that's too easy.

The guy I ran into the other weekend knew exactly where he was -- he was standing with a gorgeous view of the Golden Gate Bridge dominating the horizon -- and more than likely knew that flying a drone in the NRA is illegal. Drones have been a problem at Golden Gate NRA in recent years -- several years ago a drone nearly collided with several visitors at Alcatraz Island -- and more recently there have been issues with them at Yellowstone National Park, where one pilot crashed his into iconic Grand Prismatic Spring, and at Yosemite National Park. So great a problem have these remote control aircraft become that the National Park Service last June ordered that drones be prohibited in all units of the park system.

"Isn't flying drones in a national park illegal?" I asked him.

"Is it?" he answered.

"Yeah, I think so," said I.

"Is this a park?" he said with a smirk, before turning back to his controls.

He was drawing a crowd, and it's fortunate he didn't crash his drone into them, or onto the cliffside below him. Perhaps if there were rangers about they might have cited him or convinced him to keep his drone in his car, but there weren't, and the few volunteers working the crowds were more absorbed with opening the tunnel to the Point Bonita Lighthouse than directing air traffic.

Drones can be great tools, and can capture wonderful photographs. But they also can be dangerous in crowded settings, in places where they can startle or harass wildlife, or where they can crash into priceless objects or natural curiosities, such as Grand Prismatic Spring. Unfortunately, if parks can't afford to have rangers out patrolling the grounds, more and more drone jockeys will figure their odds of being caught are long.


It's not just the NPS concerned with drones.  The FAA is fighting a battle to find a way (against stiff pressure from the burgeoning drone industry) to regulate the things.

Not long ago, two passengers airliners on landing approach to New York airports reported near misses with drones.  One pilot radioed ATC saying a drone had passed over the top of his aircraft at 4000 feet!

Flying cameras are by and large a safe and productive expression of the First Amendment. I take issue with your Alcatraz story. There was no collision. He was charged with a crime merely for flying around the island and potentially scaring birds. Let's compare it 'apples to apples' to other human outdoor activities before we say it's unsafe or disruptive. Should cars and bikes be banned too? The NPS ban is temporary and includes many wide open places like Ocean Beach next to SF, which is a great and safe place to fly compared the dense city. The NPS ban also includes Point Reyes with it's huge cow farm -- hardly a wildlife sanctuary. Recently in Point Reyes, there was a fatal landslide which orruced when visitors crept close to the edge of the cliff. If more people had a flying camera, these sorts of incidents would be less common. Let's think that way for once. Between the NPS, State Parks and East Bay Regional Parks, they have criminalized the next Ansel Adams videographer in every major nature area. Go California. This is a healthy hobby and we should not have to hide from authorities. The FAA should make the rules for all airspace.  

How can someone be a "scofflaw" when he is doing something that is perfectly legal?  

National Park Service is in charge of National Park lands.  They do not have the authority to control airspace far above their parks.  That's what FAA does - and FAA is perfectly fine with recreational 'drone' flying.  (with a few restricted areas.) 

In other words, you can't take off from park grounds, but you can fly over park grounds.  

Following the rules does not make one a "scofflaw."  

Some people are being irrational and fearmongering.  There's many more people who get killed and severely injured by speeding bicyclists than by falling "drones."  But somehow, we don't expect license, insurance, and registration for bicycles.  Maybe we should...  Maybe you can go on a fearmongering mission evey time you see a cyclist ride by a little fast.  They're endangering the rest of us as well.  

With time, we will figure out the social norms for playing with "drones" and what is socially acceptable and what is not.  This issue reminds me of another one we had in years past, when some parks tried to ban motorcycles from entering. 

Philly, the gentleman in the photo did indeed launch his drone in the park, even after I pointed out that he was in a national park and that drones were banned in national parks. There are other cases, as well -- are you familiar with the drone laying at the bottom of Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park, or the buzzing of wildlife in Zion National Park? 

What "social norms" would you propose for drones in national parks? How do you restrict their numbers, where they can fly, how close they can come to wildlife and visitors? Will we need "drone control towers" to manage the airspace? 

There's no question drones can provide incredible perspectives of park landscapes. But opening the parks to all drone pilots likely would create a nightmare of regulatory problems. How would you address the issues?

There are rules and have been rules for years about radio controlled (RC) aircraft, which is what these drones fall under the control of.  You can't fly them in populated areas and they are not as one commented free to fly anywhere.  A true drone, one flown by remote camera, are currently illegal everywhere.  These are RC aircrafts and must follow the rules for them.  

If someone were flying a traditional RC plane engine buzzing away in this same location he would be roundly chased away.  These aircraft are the same thing Radio Controlled aircraft.  The park service absolutely can enforce their legality and they have no place in the park system.

There was a police log item in this past week's issue of Mount Desert Islander, about Acadia National Park issuing summons to Mass. man for operating drone. No other details or explanation, just this paragraph:

"David Massey, 50, of Southborough, Mass., was summonsed by rangers on Sept. 24 on a charge of violating a closure. According to reports, he was operating a drone from park property."

Go to and search "drone". It's under the headline "Island police log: Man hit by tour bus."

The Acadia "Superintendent's Compendium" has a section about why drones and other unmanned aircraft aren't allowed at this time. The technical term used in the compendium is "closure," for the currently prohibited use. Go to to look it up.

I've had my air space invaded by a drone in National Forest land, hovering overhead, and didn't much like it. I can see why there needs to be rules about it.



"A true drone, one flown by remote camera, are currently illegal everywhere."


Here's a link to an FAA website about RC and drone aircraft limitations:

And another interesting article:

You can shoot your guns in national parks but you cant fly a drone.. Murica.  I live in WA state and there are thousands of acres of national park in remote areas with nobody for miles and miles and I cant fly my drone but I can go out there and shoot beer bottles with a gun till the cows come home.  they should not be banned in remote wilderness areas where there are no people.  How else am I supposed to get that nice video of a mountain>?


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