Print 26 comment(s) - last by Zak.. on May 7 at 11:21 AM

Both civilian drones and commercial drones are disallowed, appeal seems futile for now

Yosemite National Park has a friendly message to drone enthusiasts hoping to fly their drones in the park -- don't.  The park staff published an advisory on May 2, reminding visitors that drone use is in violation of National Park policy and may result in stiff fines.
I. Private Drone Use in Most of the Country -- Yup
While drones like Parrot SA's (EPA:PARRO) AR Drone or Da-Jiang ("Great Territory") Innovations (DJI) Science and Technology Co., Ltd.'s Phantom quadcopter are growing more affordable and widespread for enthusiast uses -- especially aerial filming -- the legality of such civilian fliers remains a serious question.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has the power to regulate the U.S. airspace, as granted by Congress.  A 2012 law (The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2012) orders that the FAA safely integrate commercial drones and enthusiast drones into the civilian airspace by 2015, but it currently has failed to develop that policy and looks unlikely to meet that deadline.  In the meantime it's tried to urge businesses not to use drones and for civilians to limit their use.  In guidelines, it writes:
Do I need to get approval from the FAA to fly a model aircraft for recreation?
No. FAA guidance does not address size of the model aircraft. FAA guidance says that model aircraft flights should be kept below 400 feet above ground level (AGL), should be flown a sufficient distance from populated areas and full-scale aircraft, and are not for business purposes. 

Parrot AR 2.0
A federal ALJ recently ruled that use of drones, like this Parrot AR 2.0 quadcopter is legal for both civilians and commercial use. [Image Source: Parrot/RobotShop]

The last sentence in the guideline, however, may well be unlawful.  The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in March of this year issued an FAA fine for a commercial drone user who defined the FAA's ban.  The administrative law judge (ALJ) ruled that the FAA could not discriminate against drones versus other forms of model aircraft.
For companies like, Inc. (AMZNor Google Inc. (GOOG) looking to deploy drones to either deliver products or internet service to consumers, the fight to develop a fair regulatory framework has just begun.  But for civilians, the FAA's guidelines appear to now acknowledge that use below 400 feet is okay.
II. Private Drone Use in National Parks -- Nope
An exception though is the U.S. National Park System.  In a post on its public homepage, Yosemite National Park's staff -- employees of the U.S. National Parks Service (NPS) -- write:

Yosemite National Park advises visitors that the use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (Drones) are prohibited within park boundaries due to regulations outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). Specifically, the use of drones within the park boundaries is illegal under all circumstances. Thirty Six CFR 2.17(a)(3) states, “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. This applies to drones of all shapes and sizes.

The park has experienced an increase in visitors using drones within park boundaries over the last few years. 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 for other visitors creating an environment that is not conducive to wilderness travel. The use of drones also interferes with emergency rescue operations and can cause confusion and distraction for rescue personnel and other parties involved in the rescue operation. Additionally, drones can have negative impacts on wildlife nearby the area of use, especially sensitive nesting peregrine falcons on cliff walls.

Visitors traveling to the park should be aware that the use of drones is prohibited while visiting the park and should not be utilized at any time. 

Based on the comments, it appears that 36 C.F.R. 2.17 applies not just to Yosemite, but also to all U.S. National Parks.
For those wondering about a court challenge don't get your hopes up.  That same provision has been successfully applied in federal court to prohibit base jumping (with a parachute) and has been upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in 2000.  Considering that the Ninth Circuit sets precedent for California -- the home state of Yosemite -- it appears drone enthusiasts have little hope of winning a fight against the park policy in federal court.  Drone enthusiasts' best bet would be to test the waters in national parks in another Federal Circuit, but be prepared for a long and costly fight, which may well end in disappointment.
The 36 C.F.R., which outlines the U.S. National Park rules and regulations, traces its power to The National Park Service Organic Act signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916.  It is accompanied by 16 U.S.C. § 1, the base provision of that 1916 Congressional law.
Yosemite is one of the most beloved and used U.S. National Parks, seeing 3.7 million visitors per year in recent years.  It is known for its spectacular granite cliffs, including the Half Dome, and for its groves of Giant Sequoia trees.

Yosemite in the winter
Yosemite National Park is seen here in the winter months. [Image Source: Mary Lundin/My Shot]

While Yosemite was a "state park" until the creation of the U.S. National Park System in 1916, it was actually the first federally protected piece of wilderness.  The first law that protected it was the Yosemite Grant Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in June 1864, just ten months before the President was assasinated.

Source: National Park Service [advisory]

Comments     Threshold

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What is right and what is wrong?
By Hakuryu on 5/6/2014 12:07:12 AM , Rating: 3
As someone who loves to camp, and often defines that experience by the least bit of human interference : light pollution, sound pollution from cars and trucks... I can foresee a time when you go to a National Park and your beautiful picture is contaminated by hundreds of little drone machines.

But... the ground is highly contaminated now. Mostly by snowmobiles. A law went into effect that banned the highly noisy and pollutant variety (2 stroke vs 4), and it was overturned by Bush. Do a little research and watch how negatively thousands of snowmobiles are to the pristine beauty and to wildlife... shouldn't take you long.

So we can't contaminate images, but it's okay to contaminate the ground and spook wildlife because snowmobiles are big business.

Where do we draw the line? Maybe hundreds enjoyed the winter beauty, while now thousands can as the destroy the beauty they are using snowmobiles to view. Reminds me of modern physics; by viewing it we change it.

By Jeffk464 on 5/6/2014 12:03:16 PM , Rating: 2
Well to a certain extent the national parks have become Disneyland so I guess you need all the rules. If you want the true wilderness experience you have to go to National Forest Land. Instead of Yosemite go to Hetch Hetchy, just as spectacular but no crowds and not developed.

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