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UAVs Prohibited in National Parks in the USA

As we state in our book, The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data, oftentimes, technological advancement and adoption proceeds at a faster pace than regulations accompanying it.  A perfect example is what is probably the hottest technology in remote sensing right now, and that is UAVs, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.  The Internet is becoming rapidly filled with stories and videos of footage from UAVs deployed by aerial survey companies, but even more commonly, operated by the general public.  For example, this storymap contains footage of UAV imagery flown over a rocket launch, a cruise ship, and more.

While I as a geographer are fascinated by these images and videos, I am at the same time sensitive to the myriad of privacy and safety issues raised by the operation of UAVs.  We are beginning to see laws passed to regulate the operation of UAVs on certain lands, such as the recent policy directive against flying these in national parks in the USA.

Jonathan Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, said that “We embrace many activities in national parks because they enhance visitor experiences with the iconic natural, historic and cultural landscapes in our care.  However, we have serious concerns about the negative impact that flying unmanned aircraft is having in parks, so we are prohibiting their use until we can determine the most appropriate policy that will protect park resources and provide all visitors with a rich experience.”  Some parks had already initiated bans after noise and nuisance complaints from park visitors, an incident in which park wildlife were harassed, and park visitor safety concerns.  For example, earlier this year, visitors at Grand Canyon National Park gathered for a quiet sunset were interrupted by a loud unmanned aircraft flying back and forth and eventually crashing in the canyon. Volunteers at Zion National Park witnessed an unmanned aircraft disturb a herd of bighorn sheep, reportedly separating adults from young animals.

The policy memorandum directs park superintendents to take a number of steps to exclude unmanned aircraft from national parks. The steps include drafting a written justification for the action, ensuring compliance with applicable laws, and providing public notice of the action.  The memorandum does not affect the primary jurisdiction of the Federal Aviation Administration over the National Airspace System.

The policy memorandum is a temporary measure, and it seems like a wise move. Jarvis said the next step will be to propose a Servicewide regulation regarding unmanned aircraft. That process can take considerable time, depending on the complexity of the rule, and includes public notice of the proposed regulation and opportunity for public comment.  The National Park Service may use unmanned aircraft for administrative purposes such as search and rescue, fire operations and scientific study. These uses must also be approved by the associate director for Visitor and Resource Protection.

Near the Esri office in Colorado a month ago, I witnessed my first UAV flight where I did not know who was operating the vehicle.  I’m sure we will look back in years to come and realize that we in 2014 were at the dawn of a technology that will no doubt transform GIS and our everyday lives.   I anticipate sensors soon capable of capturing imagery in a wide variety of wavelengths, as well as atmospheric and other types of sensors that will further hasten the era of big data.  I am hopeful that we will chart a prudent course through the advent of UAVs, taking advantage of the innumerable benefits that UAVs can offer the GIS industry and also society as a whole.

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