National Parks - No Fly Zone

Tagged: National Park / banned / legal / policy /

Great photos can still be captured from the ground.

The R/C industry has come a long way in recent years. Everything is getting smaller, lighter, cheaper, and much better. It is now possible, and quite popular, to put HD video cameras on flying R/C vehicles like quadcopters. Hobbyists build their own or buy a ready made kit like the Blade 350 QX or the ubiquitous DJI Phantom.

This popularity is sure to bring some reactions from others. This week Yosemite National Park (and all National Parks for that matter) has responded. They have officially banned any "drone" inside the park. They state:

The Code of Federal Regulations states that "delivering or retrieving a person or object by parachute, helicopter, or other airborne means, except in emergencies involving public safety or serious property loss, or pursuant to the terms and conditions of a permit" is illegal.

If you are not sure how that applies to R/C aircraft, you are not alone. This looks like a case of "we don't like this what can we find that lets us ban it"? It sure sounds like that law prevents skydiving in the parks, not flying an R/C quadcopter. When they explain why they applied this to R/C aircraft the reasons cited were safety, noise, wildlife, and obstructing the views.

The tenuous nature of the ban aside, is it a good decision?

Any vehicle capable of carrying a camera is also capable of harming the pilot or anyone else unfortunate enough to be caught in some kind of mishap. These machines have sharp blades that spin at thousands of RPMs, volatile batteries notorious for what they are capable of when mistreated, and even in the best of circumstances are rather heavy jagged objects you don't want falling on you.

The reasons for accidents can be anything: pilot error, radio interference, battery failure, unproven hacks, or collision with a WWII zero.

These vehicles are also increasingly accessible to people with more money than common sense or skill. We've probably all seen or heard about that rich guy who wants to get some video like he saw on YouTube and buys a quadcopter and GoPro. 30 seconds into his maiden flight he is out $1,000 and finally realizes just how difficult it is to fly these things, even with stabilization and GPS.

Clearly the hobby has risks, made more common by those who fail to use good judgment. Banning "drones" is a good decision when you look at it from this perspective.

However, there are many very skilled pilots who exercise extreme caution when flying. Just like driving there are of course risks, but they can be properly managed. Most of us only operate when it is safe for us and others. The safety issue is one we are well aware of and can in many ways eliminate as an issue.

The other "nuisance" issues are rather weak reasons to ban them. Cars make more noise and kill more wildlife. People's litter spoils the views more than a quadcopter. Oh, and how about that guy who blasts his music until 11pm at night in the campground, and gets threatening when asked to turn it off? Lets deal with some of these first.

There must be a happy medium here. A way to keep the accident waiting to happen pilots from making others fear for their safety, the skies free from too many buzzing R/Cs, AND the people with the "right stuff" the freedom to capture stunning video of these great places.

How we can help ourselves

One way we can help ourselves is to use self control and educate others:

  • Never fly when others are around. If they do show up, ask if it is OK to fly and let them know what they can do to stay safe.
  • Engage people in a friendly way. I once saw someone flying in Zion National Park. Another visitor was curious and asked some questions, "Where did you get that?" "How much?". The pilots answers were rather curt, border-line rule: "The Internet" and "A Lot". Hey, don't be a jerk to others you are sharing the park with. Don't give them a reason to not like us.
  • If you see another pilot who may not be very safe, let them know. Accountability is a good thing.
  • Use common sense. If it is a perfect sunset, don't hover your quad in front of the 20 cameras on tripods...even if you got there first.

This decision is one of many to come. The take away here is that we need to take a proactive approach before people who don't like or understand the hobby define us and our hobby. Even the name "drone" is something of a pejorative term. These are the growing pains that come with new territory. We may not like the decision, but it is one we have to live with for now. Otherwise pilots face a stiff fine or worse...what many Facebook comments would like to do to offenders' R/C.

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