Do drones have a place in national parks? Yosemite ban raises questions

The U.S. National Park Service, noting the growing presence of unmanned aircraft in Yosemite, has banned all visitors from using drones in the park.

In a statement issued on Friday, the NPS suggested the drones have become a problem for people and wildlife alike:

“Drones have been witnessed filming climbers ascending climbing routes, filming views above tree-tops, and filming aerial footage of the park. Drones can be extremely noisy, and can impact the natural soundscape. Drones can also impact the wilderness experience.”

On the face of it, the ban seems like common sense. After all, it’s only a matter of time until some Coors-chugging nitwit decides it would be funny to pick a mid-air fight with a bald eagle, or to strafe a grazing elk herd with a DJI Phantom 2 quadcopter — and, in any case, who wants to enjoy the natural world with mini-airplanes buzzing about?

But, as drone lawyer Brendan Schulman points out, the situation is not that simple. In an email comment, he noted that an outright ban could mean the National Park Service is depriving park users of the chance to use the drones for good:

“Considering that drones are becoming an increasingly popular way to take great photographs, rather than a complete ban it would be interesting to consider whether they might be allowed in specific areas of our national parks, much in the way that motor vehicles are allowed in some places but not others.”

Given the splendid photo technology offered by many drones, one can only wonder what a latter-day Ansel Adams could do with a drone in Yosemite. Likewise, an outright ban on drones in national parks could diminish new opportunities for science, sport or search-and-rescue.

The situation is also complicated because of the tenuous legal status of drones. The FAA is scrambling to assert its power after a federal court knocked down its first attempt to regulate the devices. And, as the lawyer Schulman notes, the regulation invoked by the National Park Service appears to be aimed at manned delivery aircraft rather than tiny drones.

The ultimate answer to these questions is likely to lie in some sort of permitting system. But for now, drone enthusiasts are likely to face a growing number of blanket bans like that imposed in Yosemite.

Titan aerospace drone 2