UAS: The National Park Service Weighs In

The place is Grand Canyon National Park.  It’s sunset and a group of tourists stare off at the horizon, soaking in the tremendous majesty and beauty of this tranquil wilderness.

Suddenly, out of the setting sun, a drone roars in, diving on the unsuspecting tourists.  The shrill scream of its engines spreads terror and confusion as the drone makes numerous passes.  Suddenly, without warning, the drone banks over and crashes spectacularly into the canyon.

No, not a scene out of National Lampoon’s Grand Canyon Vacation and Chevy Chase had nothing to do with it.  Yes, allegedly, it did happen, although we’re sure it was probably a lot less dramatic and a lot more annoying for the tourists than our description.  The incident, however, cannot be laughed off, as it featured prominently in the National Park Service’s decision to ban all unmanned aircraft ( from operation over any land or waters administered by the Service.

The National Park Service states that the ban is not permanent, and that the next step will be a rulemaking to establish UAS guidelines.  The press release also states that the regulatory process “can take considerable time,” so the ban will last for the foreseeable future.  To the extent that any person had been issued a permit to fly a UAS at any national park, those permits are also suspended indefinitely.

The policy directive permits park superintendents to continue to permit hobbyists to fly model aircraft at specific parks at their discretion.  Even before this latest policy announcement and press release, however, recreational UAS use was banned at a number of the more popular national parks, including Zion, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon.  It is unclear how many more of the nation’s 84 million square acres of national park land will be similarly off-limits.

Hopefully, one of the issues that the Park Service is considering is the potential for unintended consequences.  As the cost of UASs available to the general public continues to drop, more and more people will be looking for a place to fly them.  Forcing these users out of less populated wilderness areas may only increase the number of UASs flown in more populated areas, where the dangers to persons and property on the ground will be greater.

(Originally posted June 24, 2014)

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