Thoughts on Drones and Yellowstones

Posted In: Blog, Photography, RV Products, Yellowstone

Like many photographers, in recent years we’ve acquired a drone for aerial shots. Our drone of choice is the popular DJI Phantom series (http://goo.gl/uklwdh), but there are many such products on the market.

What is a drone? Simply stated, it’s a remotely controlled flying device (typically some form of quadcopter) that’s often equipped with a camera. They are fun toys, but they are more than toys. Drones allow us to capture sky high images that previously would have been unobtainable or at least unaffordable. They are wonderful storytelling tools.

It looks a little scary, eh? (Click the pic for more info.)

It looks a little scary, eh? (Click the pic for more info.)

As a drone owner, I appreciate the incredible promise of this new technology. Since we purchased our own drone, we’ve integrated the shots into our video and photo projects, and they have provided a fresh new perspective.

Drones have other important applications, like finding missing people (lost hikers, for example). They are already being used in search and rescue efforts since they are much cheaper to operate than helicopters. Amazon claims they may someday be used to deliver packages. What seems like fanciful conjecture today will become reality tomorrow. The only guarantee with technology is that it will continually improve.

When we acquired our own drone, I was immediately impressed with its potential. “This is the coolest tech gadget I’ve bought since my original iPhone,” I told my wife. “In five years, these things will either be everywhere…or they will be illegal.

It didn’t take five years for my words to come true. In our national parks, drones have already been made illegal. Our government may not be good at much, but it’s great at banning.

Here's a shot of a Dune Coastal Lake in Florida, at the point it empties into the Gulf of Mexico.  Try getting this shot with a tripod. (Click the pic for more info.)

Here’s a shot of a Dune Coastal Lake in Florida, at the point it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Try getting this shot with a tripod. (Click the pic for more info.)

Illegal? Sadly, drones have their downsides. We read with dismay the recent reports of a boneheaded Dutch tourist who crashed his own drone into Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring. Apparently the drone crashed into the spring, one of Yellowstone’s most impressive natural features, and sank. Park officials have done the obligatory hand wringing, expressing concern that the drone may adversely affect the ecosystem of the spring.

Drone on the beach! If this isn't the name of a cocktail, it should be. (Click the pic for more info.)

Drone on the beach! If this isn’t the name of a cocktail, it should be. (Click the pic for more info.)

While I’m no scientist, it’s hard for me to imagine a 2-pound plastic drone leaving much of a lasting impact on the Yellowstone supervolcano. However, I will concede that the disintegrating lithium batteries of the drone will do no one any good. And no one travels to Yellowstone to gaze upon a dead drone carcass. Like all litter, we’d be better off without it.

Should drones be illegal in all national parks? I don’t think so. I do concede that there are numerous ethical, safety, and lifestyle issues presented by drones. But I’m not sure that a blanket Soviet-style ban is the best solution here in the land of the free. It seems a little silly: you can bring loaded firearms into our national parks, but not plastic helicopters?

Let’s ponder a few troublesome issues raised by drones.

THE SPYING ISSUE

From an ethical standpoint, there’s the question of whether we want individuals (or even worse, our government) monitoring the activity of others via aircraft. Yes, drones can theoretically be used to spy on people.

So there is a spying concern here. But is it any worse than telephoto lenses? Telephoto lenses allow people to spy from long distances, and they are even more stealthy than drones. (Drones are loud little suckers that announce their presence; telephoto lenses are quiet.) Should we make telephoto lenses illegal because they may be misused? Private detectives and wildlife photographers would be put out of business.

The upshot is that I believe the spying issue is overblown, especially for the vast majority of consumer and prosumer drones. Our military and law enforcement are dealing with an entirely different class of equipment. If you want to fret about spying, fret about your own government. The Average Joe isn’t doing much spying with a consumer quality drone.

THE NOISE ISSUE

At the moment most drones are a bit noisy. There’s no denying that they emit what might be called mild noise pollution. Should drones be made illegal in parks for this reason?

Well, drones emit much less noise than most automobiles and generators and radios and other items that are freely brought into parks. Let’s face it: the average diesel truck doesn’t sound like a symphony of songbirds. Yet we allow cars, diesel trucks, and fossil fuel generators in our parks.

Frankly, drones rank far down the list with regard to noise sources.

THE LITTER ISSUE

Then there is the litter issue, such as occurred in Yellowstone. There’s never any good excuse for litter. Of course, in this case the litter is accidental. No drone owner wants to see their high dollar tech toy go bye bye. With drones, the litter would never be intentional.

Let's please not call this a "selfie." Because I hate the term "selfie." (Click the pic for more info.)

Let’s please not call this a “selfie.” Because I hate the term “selfie.” (Click the pic for more info.)

But with drones, there is always the risk that the drone may crash in a difficult to retrieve location (for example, somewhere in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, or high in a Glacier National Park treetop). Obviously we don’t want our parks to become littered with the carcasses of discarded drones.

With that said, it’s not hard to imagine special “retrieval drones” that could be sent into areas to retrieve crashed drones. It sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but it’s probably less complicated than our current video setup. Imagine a simple gripping claw attached to a powerful drone. Such a tool would be useful in retrieving all sorts of litter, not just dead drones.

THE SAFETY ISSUE

From a safety standpoint, errant drones could potentially cause plane crashes by flying into restricted airspace. If a stray goose can bring down a jet airplane, a stray drone might someday do the same. Sadly, there will always be some irresponsible owners who will fly their drones without regard for others’ safety. This is probably the most worrisome issue related to consumer drones.

This problem can be mitigated easier than you might think. Most drones contain GPS units, so they can be programmed from the factory to avoid airports and similar “off limits” areas. They simply refuse to fly in the restricted areas. Many new drones are already being equipped with these GPS limitations. This ensures, for example, that a person cannot fly a drone into airspace above an airport.

ALL WE ARE SAYING? GIVE DRONES A CHANCE

Should drones be illegal in national parks? I don’t think so. I hope we can find a middle ground that will allow for drone usage, without adversely affecting any ecosystems or fellow citizens.

Instead of a wholesale ban decree issued straight from the Kremlin, it might make more sense to have designated “drone zones” and “drone hours” in our parks. We could have certain areas of the parks where drones are allowed during certain times of day. For example, it would be okay to fly a drone in a certain designated area during daylight hours, but never allowed directly over sensitive areas like Old Faithful. This seems to me to be a reasonable compromise.

One thing’s for sure: the cat’s out of the bag. The horse has left the barn. The chicken has flown the coop. (Insert the fleeing animal analogy of your choice here.)

This technology is here. It will continually improve and grow more useful, and more popular. Why attempt to neuter it? As a society, we need to consider smart ways to manage it so that we reap its benefits while limiting its downsides.


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