US ban on drones over parks delights wilderness lovers

Some 84 million acres are now off limits to remote-controlled aircraft

In Yosemite,  drones have been used to film climbers scaling its sheer granite rockfaces. Photograph: Getty Images

In Yosemite, drones have been used to film climbers scaling its sheer granite rockfaces. Photograph: Getty Images

Thu, Jun 26, 2014, 01:00

In one of his unpublished journals, the great Scottish-born, American conservationist John Muir mused upon the magnificent national park that came into being thanks to his tireless campaigning (which in a nice touch, even included sneaking away with president Teddy Roosevelt, right under the noses of the secret service, for three days of High Sierra camping in breathtaking Yosemite).

Yosemite Park is a place of rest, a refuge from the roar and dust and weary, nervous, wasting work of the lowlands, in which one gains the advantages of both solitude and society,” he wrote.

“Nowhere will you find more company of a soothing peace-be-still kind. Your animal fellow beings, so seldom regarded in civilisation, and every rock-brow and mountain, stream, and lake, and every plant, soon come to be regarded as brothers; even one learns to like the storms and clouds and tireless winds.”

Sigh of relief

But, as of last week, Yosemite has not learned to like drones.

In a step that will bring a collective sigh of relief from millions of wilderness lovers who head to Yosemite and other American national parks to escape the modern world, the US parks service placed a temporary ban last Friday on the use of drones within all 401 US national parks, with immediate effect.

The ban also includes all national recreation areas, and national monuments, such as Mount Rushmore. In total, 84 million acres just became off limits to drones, those remote-controlled aircraft that often carry cameras to film inaccessible spots or obtain aerial views.

In Yosemite, some have used drones to film climbers scaling its sheer granite rockfaces. Park services director Jonathan Jarvis said in one interview: “Imagine you’re a big wall climber in Yosemite, working on a four- day climb up El Capitan, and you’re hanging off a bolt ready to make a move, and an unmanned aircraft flies up beside you and is hovering a few feet from your head with its GoPro camera running. Think about what that does to your experience and your safety.”

Drones have also crashed into the walls of the Grand Canyon. One buzzed bighorn sheep in Zion National Park, causing panicking young to become separated from the herd. Such incidents persuaded the parks service to say “enough”.

 

Legality

Some parks had already moved to ban the aircraft, but the general rule across all parks is intended to remove any question over the legality of using drones.

 

The goal is to make the ban permanent, but that’s a longer process, expected to take about 18 months.

The ban isn’t total. Drones can be used, with permission, for scientific reasons, for law enforcement or professional film-making.

Model aircraft clubs can also apply to fly planes in some locations, such as recreational areas.

But the ban is yet another clear sign that the general public is concerned about the privacy implications and the nuisance element of these increasingly mainstream, non-military-use devices.

There’s the noise and distraction. Whatever about flying them in a local park or, perhaps, your own garden, having the things buzzing about overhead while you are trying to get in touch with nature at a national park seems a bit much.

 

Onboard camera

But it’s the onboard camera that has the potential to be truly invasive. A drone controller can fly the craft up to hover in front of windows of a home or business, or over a neighbouring garden or school.

 

Some towns in the US have banned, or are considering banning, drone use within city limits without a warrant. In some, this would include taking aerial shots of houses for home sale ads, a drone speciality that is increasingly popular in Ireland.

Perhaps the most publicised potential use of drones came from Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos, who last December set the internet a- Twitter with his future plans to have drones deliver packages, a service called Amazon Prime Air.

However, that strategy was dealt a setback this week, with US regulatory body the Federal Aviation Administration announcing that commercial use of drones remains illegal, while a public consultation process begins.

It didn’t name Amazon specifically, but it’s pretty obvious who it was talking about when it noted a ban on the “delivering of packages to people for a fee”.

In Ireland, we seem to have no specific regulation or oversight for drones, an issue that needs public discussion and Government action.

Don’t get me wrong; there certainly are many compelling commercial and recreational uses for drones.

But we are reaching the point where regulation is needed to ensure your unwanted morning wake-up call isn’t the whining arrival of a neighbour’s drone-mounted camera peering in your bedroom window.

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