by Cyrus Farivar – Sept 27 2014, 10:05am EDT www.arstechnica.com/science
Of all of the drone incidents reported at national parks across the United States over the last year, one stands out: a small aircraft spotted over the Mount Rushmore site in South Dakota in September 2013. Within hours, in the shadow of the famous four busts of American presidents, National Park Service (NPS) employees confronted a group of six individuals at a park ice cream shop and seized their passports, memory cards, and mobile phones.
Drones have become something of a scourge at various national parks. In June 2014, the NPS banned the use of drones in all of its parks, following an initial ban in Yosemite National Park in California the previous month. Since then, rangers have taken notable steps to enforce the ban.
Earlier this week, a German man was sentenced to a one year ban from Yellowstone and was ordered to pay a $1,600 fine after he crashed a drone into Yellowstone lake. A Dutch tourist was ordered to pay over $3,200 after he crashed his drone into the Grand Prismatic Hot Spring. One more case against an Oregon man remains pending in federal court in Wyoming.
In April 2014, a drone was spotted at the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, and anotherbuzzed over a herd of bighorn sheep at Zion National Park in Utah, apparently separating adults from young animals. In June 2014, a man posted a video of a drone shot in Alaska’s Denali National Park—a park spokeswoman told Ars that its presence disrupted a local bird population. In a separate incident in the same month, a man got his drone stuck in a tree at the Gros Ventre campground at the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.
But the new incident report from Mount Rushmore, which Ars acquired via a Freedom of Information Act request, illustrates the efforts that rangers are willing to go to in order to interdict drones. Ars also obtained new detailed information about the drone incidents at Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks, and new information showing that the NPS has acquired a drone of its own for use at the Death Valley National Park.
Don’t drink while droning
According to his own report, on September 8, 2013, Joe Turgyan became one of four rangers involved in an attempt to locate the drone that had been spotted flying over Mt. Rushmore—it appeared that the drone “had landed on the top of the Lincoln bust and then took off.”
After going from the Visitor’s Center to a nearby parking garage, where he spent hours observing people moving about, Turgyan was then dispatched to a local ice cream shop two meet two other rangers that had gathered there and were questioning the drone operators.
Not long after, Turgyan searched three vehicles associated with the suspects, which turned up a drone battery, charger, a mini-USB to USB cable, $13,000 in cash, spare parts, manuals, and other curious items.
Aside from the evidence relate to the UAV, there was two empty airline-sized bottles of alcohol. These bottles were discovered in the cargo pocket behind the driver’s seat. An empty, red, plastic cup that smelled of an alcohol on seat behind the driver and consumed the alcohol. Both individuals stated that the occupants had been switching seats throughout the trip and they could not say who was responsible for the open containers of alcohol. I decided to disregard the open container violation and continued to focus on the UAV.
Turgyan explained to the man why flying drones in a crowded national park was risky and potentially dangerous. The man said that he was a helicopter pilot, and that he had previously flown it at Yellowstone National Park, but admitted that he had only owned the drone for a week. The drone and its memory card were seized as evidence.
The suspects, whose names were redacted in the records provided to Ars, could face criminal prosecution, particularly after the successful guilty pleas in the Yellowstone cases involving the two European men.
Turgyan did not immediately respond to Ars’ request for further comment.
“Two of these young men decided to go retrieve the unit”
Another incident revealed in the records involves a man from Merced, California, who went to Grand Canyon National Park in April 2014 with his three nieces. In a two-page letter to NPS regional officials, the man, whose name was redacted, wrote:
There young men have brought with them a remote controlled “helicopter” with 4 fan blades and they proceed to launch it. The peaceful moments of watching the sunset was subsequently shattered by the loud obnoxious buzzing of the unit. Fortunately this disturbance was short lived. After several forays out over the canyon, they lost control. About 100 feet out from the rim, the unit floundered and fell into the canyon. To the delight of many present.
After some discussion, two of these young men decided to go retrieve the unit. They scrambled down and were gone for over an hour before emerging with the unit. For anyone familiar with the area knows there are no trails here.
Does there now have to be a regulation prohibiting use of such aircraft when common sense and courtesy dictate it?
This incident ended “well.” But think of the possible consequences of losing control of the remote controlled aircraft. They did lose control!
What if the retrievers had gotten injured while on their mission?
What if the unit had impacted and fell onto one of the innocent park goers?
Or worse what if the unit had merely come near to someone, frightening them and they fell INTO the canyon (TOTALLY INNOCENT LIVES LOST?)?
Cameron Sholly, the associate director of visitor and resource protection, responded in her own letter to the man, saying that the NPS was working on banning drones, and other radio-controlled aircraft in all national parks.
Don’t scare the sheep
Just nine days after the Grand Canyon drone incident, volunteers at Zion National Park reported “the illegal use of a drone on the east side of the park that had harassed a group of Desert Bighorn Sheep.”
According to an NPS report:
Volunteers observed a herd of Desert Bighorn Sheep acting unusual, racing back and forth across the road. At this location there is a wash below the [REDACTED] road (part of Clear Creek) that the sheep routinely access. They got out of their vehicle in their traffic vests to provide traffic control as visitors stopped vehicles in the roadway due to the sheep activity.
[NAME REDACTED] reported the whole herd was acting unusual, with running back and forth across the road instead of moving in a slow constant direction across the road grazing. [NAME REDACTED] stated that some of the adults traveled into the wash and then immediately turned around and headed back the way they came across the road and the young sheep were separated from the adults in the process as the herd splintered.
According to the report, the volunteers found the man operating the drone, explaining to him that drones were not allowed in the park. The report describes the man as “cooperative,” and “apologetic as he did know about the regulation and he stated to the that he had not seen the herd of sheep at the mouth of the wash. Once the drone was landed and inactive and the individuals were off to the side, the sheep’s activities normalized and the herd reunited and moved on into the wash.”
A double standard?
Perhaps the strangest revelation from the new NPS documents, however, is that Death Valley National Park itself acquired a drone in September 2010, with a federal grant of $15,000—nearly four years before the entire NPS banned drones outright.
An [Unmanned Aerial System, or drone] operating as a component of the park aviation program can allow expanded availability of aerial reconnaissance and documentation for park management activities. Real-time video transmission and high-resolution still images provided by the UAS would be immediately available to support investigations and project management. Live video can be used to locate lost persons and direct rescuers during searches. Still images could be used to develop baseline documentation of known archaeological sites and further the surveying of previously undocumented sites and features.
Other documents show that Death Valley acquired a $15,000 Spectra drone made by RPFlight, and that as of September 2010, the relevant NPS authorities would apply for a Certificate of Authorization (COA) to fly the drone from the Federal Aviation Administration.
Neither NPS nor Death Valley National Park officials immediately responded to Ars’ request for comment as to where and how this drone has been used over the last four years.
Brendan Schulman, an attorney that has litigated on behalf of drone operators, told Ars that while he was unaware of the NPS owning its own drones, it is not unheard of for other non-military government agencies to maintain their own drones.
“There are dozens of federal agencies that use small non-military drones for very beneficial purposes,” he told Ars.
“For example, [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] uses them to study oceans and weather patterns. The [National Institute of Standards and Technology] has been using them to study wildfire movement patterns in order to protect homes and the lives of firefighters. These are important projects for the country that should not be overshadowed by misinformed concerns about privacy. The use of a drone in general does not necessarily pose any privacy issues. It is important to understand what the drone is being used for, just like any other technology.”
Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington, who has studied drone law, told Ars that the government shouldn’t impose a double standard.
“I’ll say this: the government should not have a monopoly on drones, banning the use by the press and others while retaining the right themselves,” he said. “This is an important technology and there needs to be symmetry.”