presidigo

How can I fly a drone in a National Park?

Next up in our “Ask Drone Girl” series is about flying in U.S. National Parks. If you have a question for Drone Girl, contact her here.

Hi Drone Girl,

I had a quick question about shooting in certain areas of SF. I am trying to get some footage in the Presidio and will be renting a drone to shoot it. I noticed on some drone maps that the Presidio is off limits. Is there a workaround for shooting legally there? Is a permit necessary?

-Andy

Hey Andy,

Great question! It’s complicated. To our non-San Franciscan readers, I’ll let you know that Presidio would be the most beautiful place to photography with a drone.

But unfortunately, the short answer is no, you cannot shoot in the Presidio with a drone.

The National Park Service in August 2014 made it illegal to launch, land, or operate unmanned aircraft under 36 CFR 1.5, which essentially gives the National Park Service the authority to impose public use limits such as hours of operations or not walking off the path.

(I started looking into this when I learned you could not fly drones over the Golden Gate Bridge.)

Before every flight, I recommend checking in your flight location on AirMap. It’s a useful and free tool to see if you are flying too close to an airport (5 miles is actually broader than most people think!), or in otherwise restricted areas such as a National Park — because a lot of people don’t realize the Presidio is a National Park).

You’ll see that the Presidio, where you want to fly, is prohibited.

airmap presidio
Screenshot from AirMap

However, there is a chance you can still fly your drone there. Purposes such as scientific study, search and rescue operations, fire operations, and law enforcement can operate under written permission from National Park Service administration.

No matter what National Park you want to fly in, contact that park’s specific management team well in advance and explain what you need to do. It would help if you can prove your case and professionalism. Ideally you would have a Part 107 certification from the Federal Aviation Administration to prove you are a licensed drone pilot. If you don’t, get it first!

You might also want to provide documentation of the safety of your equipment, as well as the details of your flight including time of day, etc. More information is better!

If you do get permission from the park management team, make sure you have it signed and in writing. Have it with you on the day of your shoot, as well as your Part 107 license, in case someone questions you.

And above all, happy flying!

14 thoughts on “How can I fly a drone in a National Park?”

  1. This article is incorrect. You can fly over a National Park. But as rules you cite say: you cannot launch operate or land one in a national park. Operate here refers to using the control system (i.e. walking into the park with the controller active).

    If you stay outside the national park, launch it outside and then fly over it and than land it outside the national park, you are perfectly legal (assuming you respect all airspace restrictions/NOTAMs). NPS doesn’t have authority to restrict overflights. That is exclusive FAA authority and as long as you obey the FAA rules, you are in the clear.

    1. That’s all well and good, but while you are technically correct, most any landmark worth recording within the NPS will be well within the borders of the park. This becomes problematic since you need *visual* line of sight to fly. With most drones, this is only a few hundred feet. The way the (very restrictive) FAA guidelines are written, most drone flights you see on YouTube go contrary to those guidelines.

    2. In certain national parks, specifically, Yosemite, the outer rim is beyond the 4.3 miles capability of the Mavic Pro. So yes, you can start from the outside of the NP, but only get certain viewpoints and not the good ones, the valley for instance.

    3. Yes but you’re required to apply for a COA with the FAA for almost all UAS activity and chances are the COA will be denied if you’re planned route is into a National Park for the purpose of just taking pictures or videos. It is always required if said UAS is 55lbs or more. Considering the FAA also requires you to keep line of site with your UAS you couldn’t fly very far into a NP if you were standing outside of it like you propose.

  2. How about having a bunch of spotters working as a team? This takes care of the “line of sight” from the operator.

    1. The National Park authorities would undoubtedly declare the spotters to be operators, since they would be integral to the (legal) operation of the drone, no matter where the pilot is.
      NP rangers can be quite keen in their desire to enforce (their interpretation of) the rules. Some years ago seven of my paraglider friends who had been flying the east side of the Sierras (outside Yosemite) were driving back through Yosemite, and during a stop they took out their paragliders to ‘kite’ them on Tuolumne Meadows (with no intention of flying them – a feat that would have been impossible from flat meadows):
      kiting paragliders :
      http://static1.1.sqspcdn.com/static/f/309100/15037917/1320985550360/Kiting.jpg

      The rangers first thought they we BASE jumpers who had landed in the meadow (BASE jumping is not allowed in Yosemite) After a long and unpleasant exchange the rangers eventually accepted that they were not BASE jumpers, but arrested them anyway, confiscated their gliders and charged them with the misdemeanor: “Operating an aircraft in a National Park without authorization.

      As a side note, to further illustrate the NP attitude (at least in Yosemite) : while hang gliders have a special dispensation to fly from Glacier Point in Yosemite … :
      hang glider :
      http://c8.alamy.com/comp/A43J0N/hang-gliding-from-glacier-point-yosemite-national-park-A43J0N.jpg

      … paragliders (which are technically ‘class 3 hang gliders’ under FAA regulations) were not granted the same dispensation, because from the ground a flying paraglider looks a (very) little like a BASE-jumper’s parachute and the rangers can’t be bothered to take the few minutes it would take to learn the difference :

      A paraglider :
      http://www.seiseralm.it/media/727_x_545/6dfed48e-2cf4-42b5-ae68-c2f1bebef40a/paragliding-schlern.jpg

      A base-jumper’s parachute :
      http://il9.picdn.net/shutterstock/videos/3438908/thumb/1.jpg

      So my advice is unless you have explicit, written permission to operate a drone from within a National Park I wouldn’t bother trying to do an end-run around the rules hoping you can talk your way out of an arrest 😉

    2. This was my thought.
      And yes a a series of visual observers with radio communication can be used to maintain line of sight.
      The issue there is the limiting duration of the battery of the drone.

      1. Curt. The observers with radios inside the park could very likely be charged with ‘operating’ the drone as they are integral to its legal operation. I wouldn’t take a chance, at least not in Yosemite (see my comment above)

  3. Hello, I moved to SF a little over a month ago. When exploring flying in the Presidio, I found the following language on the Presidio Trust webpage (http://www.presidio.gov/presidio-trust/permits), “The Presidio Trust has no specific restrictions on the launching, landing, or operation of unmanned aircraft (aka “drones”) in Area B of the Presidio. However, resource protection, public use, and recreational activities are subject to Trust regulation under Title 36 of the Code of Federal Regulations, and drone related activities must be conducted in a manner not to conflict with those restrictions (for example, the regulatory prohibitions on frightening or disturbing wildlife, injuring or destroying cultural resources, or intentional creation of a public nuisance).

    Please note that activities in Area A of the Presidio are regulated by the National Park Service (NPS). For information regarding the prohibition on unmanned aircraft in Area A, visit the National Park Service website.”

    The inner area of the Presidio is considered Area B. See Fig. 1.4 in the following PDF: http://www.presidio.gov/presidio-trust/planning-internal/Shared%20Documents/Planning%20Documents/PLN-301-PTMP02-Plan.pdf

    Given this, I don’t get how the entire Presidio is off limits…can anyone help clarify? Thanks!

    Jeremy

  4. Crap, ok, in digging even deeper, I did find the following language, “The entire Presidio remains a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area” on page E-3 of ” Golden Gate National Recreation Area (N.R.A.), Presidio of San Francisco, General Management Plan (GMP) Amendment: Environmental Impact Statement”, downloadable for free here: https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=4zw3AQAAMAAJ

    The above language combined with “The public may not launch, land, or operate unmanned aircraft at Golden Gate National Recreation Area*.” listed here: https://www.nps.gov/goga/learn/news/no-drone-zone.htm confirms previous posts…sorry for the thinking out-loud…

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