The National Park Service restricts the use of drones on or above National Parks and Preserves. The drone ban is one of many exceptions to their general policy of permitting activities that enhance the enjoyment of the national parks for visitors. The policy was set out in a 2014 Memorandum (Policy Memorandum 14-05) to use the authority granted by federal statutes to prohibit the launch, landing, or operation of unmanned aircraft. The guidance authorizes granting exceptions on a case by case basis.
The Park Service views drones as potential interference with the enjoyment of the natural beauty of the National parks; they consider the potential negative impact on the safety of guests, staff, and wildlife. There is a tension between hobbyists and the park policies, and many people have sought to circumvent the rule by avoiding setting foot on park property while operating drones in the airspace.
The restrictions potentially apply to the use of the park land, waters, and airspace. The rules ban activities with motorized equipment in undeveloped areas, nuisance from noise or other actions, and disturbing the animal habitat. The government can prosecute these activities as criminal violations; they can be charged as misdemeanors with penalties up to six months in jail and fines up to $5,000.
Commercial drone classes include the ethics of drone use. Drone License classes emphasize the importance of knowing the rules and restrictions and complying with them. Because the permit process is difficult and not transparent, some people feel it is unfair and they disregard it. Others intend to violate the law and operate their drones where they choose, including our National Parks. The park service has charged and prosecuted some well-publicized cases. Violating the park prohibition does no one any good. It is a self-defeating practice that will generally make it harder to get access to park airspace for responsible hobbyists and commercial drone operators.
Uses of Drones in National Parks
The Park Service uses drones for several helpful purposes including search and rescue, surveys, and observation of remote areas. Drones may help with surveillance of hazards like floods, mudslides, avalanches, and forest fires. Drones can make more efficient use of personnel and person-hours by expanding the range of operations for field employees. Drones can help with police functions. Commercial drone classes prepare personnel such as the park service operators, to perform mission-critical functions like searching for lost children or locating possibly injured persons.
Some private drone operators have made important contributions in photography and video of scenic park areas. These images and video presentations can increase awareness and interest in the national park system and raise appreciation of their importance. Operating within the bounds of the law is something professional operators learn from the start in their drone license classes.
Each federal agency with responsibility for parks, preserves, or wilderness areas has rules that regulate activities. When seeking to use drones on public lands, one should get advice on the regulations and policies. If required, you should get permission to operate your drone on public lands.