On Friday, June 20th, the National Park Service announced a ban on drones flying over any National Park property until further notice. The ban would prohibit flying drones over any of the 84 million acres of land, or 4.5 million acres of water, that falls under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. The agency listed a number of reasons for imposing the ban. Drones can disturb visitors and wildlife. In addition, drones could interfere with search and rescue operations.
Individual parks had already taken steps to ban drone flights earlier this year. Heavily visited parks like Yosemite and the Grand Canyon imposed drone bans because they disturbed park visitors and climbers. In Zion National Park, a drone was responsible for harassing a bighorn sheep herd and separating the lambs from the adult sheep in the herd, putting the lambs at risk. Climbers have complained that drones flying through slot canyons put them in danger.
The ban will remain in effect until the National Park Service completes a review of its drone policy. Drones will then probably be readmitted into National Parks, but will they be required to adhere to regulations designed to ensure safety for tourists and for wildlife. The ban will not apply to certain park authorized uses of drones such as tracking wildfires, assisting back country rescue efforts, and conducting scientific research in remote areas.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) anticipates that there will be around 7500 commercial and hobby drones flying over American airspace by 2018. The FAA expects that it may take several years to develop regulations for drone flights, but they have already opened up designated air space where drones can fly. These locations are being tested to see how drones affect air traffic control.
Critics of commercial drones have cited the high number of crashes by military drones to argue that commercial drones should be restricted. While most commercial and hobby drones are considerably smaller than military drones, the National Park Service is wise to exercise caution, and to ban drones from National Park airspace until further studies have been conducted.