The Drones are Coming

February 28, 2015, Feature, by Richard J. Dolesh

Christopher Vo, left, and Ted Markson fly quadcopters on the intramural fields at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.Virtually anyone who has flown a quadcopter or other modern drone will say that they are a blast to fly. Drones combine the cool factor of impressive technology, the excitement of unmanned flight and the thrill of exploration, all in one amazingly simple and easy-to-operate package. Whether you fly alone, with friends or with your kids, flying drones is just plain fun.

But drones aren’t only about fun. They will have an impact on virtually every aspect of our lives from agriculture to energy, scientific research, conservation, public safety and more. Drones have been labeled “disruptive technology,” and held up as avatars of the mythical “billion-fold improvements” that have taken place in computing, imaging, aeronautics, medicine and other fields. Drones will come to shape our lives every bit as much as cellphones, tablet computers and other game-changing technology. 

Futurists are abuzz with speculation that you will soon have your Amazon packages or Papa John’s pizzas delivered to your door by drones. Mainstream media outlets breathlessly report breaking-news stories about unauthorized or potentially dangerous drones, such as the recent story of an errant drone piloted by a possibly inebriated operator in Washington, D.C., who, while reportedly trying to impress a female friend at 3 a.m., flew his friend’s quadcopter from an apartment balcony a few blocks from the White House and crashed it on the White House grounds, causing major heartburn for the Secret Service.

Industry and media statistics on how many drones have been sold to the public differ slightly, but the sales totals almost defy belief. Hobby and commercial drones are reported to be selling at the rate of 15,000 or 16,000 per month, or almost 200,000 per year. That’s a lot of people who will be looking to get outdoors and fly their new drones. And where will these people want to fly their drones? Why, in the wide open spaces designed for outdoor recreation, of course — parks! 

There is no doubt drones are coming, and they are likely to have a profound effect on parks and recreation. The public and commercial use of drones will present substantial challenges to park managers very soon and agencies will do well to be prepared for the coming wave. 

The Allure of Drones

It is not difficult to understand why drones are becoming so popular. Flying a drone is a cool thing to do. The technology is amazing, the flying is exciting, and if there was ever a gadget that appealed to people’s imagination, drones would have to be near the top of the list.

Drones and quadcopters are also relatively inexpensive and easy to operate. But just as they are fun to fly, they are more than just cool toys. They represent a quantum leap in how technology can be used not just for personal enjoyment and enrichment, but also to expand human knowledge, aid research, fight environmental threats, save lives and much more. We haven’t even plumbed the depths of what drones might be able to do, but we are starting to see those scenarios take shape.  

There may be challenges ahead related to public flying of drones in parks, but there are also tantalizing opportunities for park agencies to utilize drone technology to fulfill important conservation, natural resource management and public-safety responsibilities. These include search-and-rescue operations, wildfire control, managing threatened natural areas, mapping the spread of invasive species, monitoring remote park locations and others. Drones may be able to provide agencies substantial time and cost savings for a wide variety of tasks. There is no doubt that drones are already stimulating interest among park planners, GIS specialists, park managers, rangers and even recreation program staff. Some agencies are already making plans for how they might use drones.

From a recreational perspective, one of the most popular uses of hobby drones is for photography. New drones can carry high-resolution cameras with onboard image stabilization and other advances. “It’s all new,” says Eric Cheng, director of aerial imagery for DJI, one of the largest manufacturers of hobby and commercial drones in the world. In a recent interview, he said the ability of drones to facilitate extraordinary new ways to photograph objects and landscapes has provoked intense curiosity and public interest. “The view from right overhead is unique. Nobody has ever seen such photographs before, and you are taking them. It’s exhilarating.”

Legitimate Fears

So what’s not to like about drones? Well, crashes, lost drones, operator errors, mechanical failures, privacy invasions and other undesirable consequences of inept or irresponsible drone flying, just to name a few reasons. Such outcomes are becoming an increasing concern of those responsible for public safety, not to mention the ever-present threat of a drone being used in a terrorist plot. There is already a compendium of hair-raising stories of near-misses or collisions with drones including reports of drones flying too close to aircraft or in other highly inappropriate locations. Reports of drones flying within 50 feet of commercial aircraft at New York City airports make some believe that a collision with an airliner is not a matter of if, but when. 

Parks have not been exempt from problems created by irresponsibly piloted drones, including a number of high-profile incidents at iconic national parks such as Zion and Grand Canyon. A widely reported incident occurred at Mount Rushmore National Park when a hobby drone was launched from a parking lot, hovered over a crowd of 1,500 people gathered for an evening program at the monument, and then flew over and around the four sculpted heads before being flown back to the parking lot. Other public complaints about inappropriate or unauthorized use of drones have been received by the National Park Service (NPS), including harassment of wildlife, noise at iconic scenic viewing points and drone crashes in parks.

Jeffrey Olson, public affairs officer for NPS, says that the prohibition on unmanned aircraft in national parks issued by Director Jon Jarvis in a policy memo last June was “basically a timeout.” The ban on new drone flying was prompted by public complaints concerning incidents similar to what happened at Mount Rushmore. NPS management policies call for careful consideration of any “new form of recreation,” which drone flying clearly is, and the impact of this activity has not been evaluated. The administrative action will trigger a review of existing and proposed policies and will lead to a Notice of Proposed Regulation, a process that is likely to take about 18 months, according to Olson. 

Incidents from rogue operators or inexperienced pilots are not the only concern. Privacy advocates, industrial and national security experts, and law enforcement officials are very concerned about the potential use of drones in terrorist plots or other criminal activity. Drones are starting to be a concern at virtually every large-scale public event that someone might want to observe or photograph, such as a drone that buzzed Chicago Park District’s Lollapalooza Festival last year. The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) even went so far as to declare the 2015 Super Bowl a “No Drone Zone,” and issued an advisory to enjoy the game, but “leave your drone at home.” 

Concerns about drones range from the relatively minor annoyance of crashes in open areas to the very deep concern regarding bad behavior by pilots whose ignorance or dangerous operation of drones can literally endanger people’s lives. Many drone enthusiasts are concerned about rogue operators giving all operators a black eye. “The rogues are outliers,” according to Jon Resnick, policy and marketing representative for DJI. Christopher Vo, president of the DC Area Drone User Group, says, “There are a lot of people who are interested in flying safely and who just want to find places to fly.” 

Nonetheless, there are still many concerns about drones from a variety of quarters, especially park agencies that many expect to be on the front lines of managing public flying of hobby drones. Vo agrees that crashes and uncontrolled descents are an issue. “Everyone who gets their first drone and takes it out to fly will crash — that’s almost a guarantee,” he says. “But it is not necessarily a problem, just a reality. The solution is user education about where it is safe to fly and to not fly near buildings or over private property.” Technology improvements, says Vo, such as inexpensive onboard infrared sensors and downward-facing cameras will help measure changes in speed and assist automatic hold, takeoff and landing. “It is also why the industry is trying to make drones lighter, stronger and safer,” he says. 

Vo points out that how a drone is flown is a factor in how safe it is. There are two principal methods of piloting drones, First-Person-View (FPV) and Line-of-Sight flying. In FPV flight, the operator flies the aircraft through the lens of an onboard camera. Some think this is a largely unsafe way to fly, and that hobby drones should be only be flown by line-of-sight with a spotter present at all times the drone is in operation. 

Rules Not Well Understood; Guidance Lacking

With the large numbers of hobby drones being purchased daily and intense interest in commercial use growing, it is perplexing that there is so little understanding of exactly what the federal rules are for operating drones. The FAA regulates all U.S. airspace and there are strict rules for any type of aircraft flying above 500 feet. The rules governing unmanned aircraft systems, however, have been criticized for being seriously out of date.  

Commercially flown drones present a different set of issues than hobby drones. Guidance for the operation of both commercial and hobby drones has been long-awaited and significantly overdue. At present, virtually all commercial use of drones is currently prohibited without a very difficult-to-obtain Certificate of Authorization (COA), but few rules govern hobby drones. Since sophisticated and versatile hobby drones can be purchased easily and without licensing requirements to operate them, not many people know what is actually allowed and what is prohibited by law. 

Just before publication of this edition of Parks & Recreation magazine, the details of a Notice of Proposed Regulation by the FAA for commercial drone use were inadvertently posted online, and the FAA was essentially forced to release the entire proposal over a holiday weekend. To the commercial drone user’s relief, the proposed regulations are being viewed as reasonable. They would not require operators to have a pilot’s license as some had feared, and the training and costs to obtain a required FAA operator’s certificate would not be prohibitive. Other proposed restrictions include a 500-foot ceiling, operation by line-of-sight only, and no flying above any people except those involved with the drone flight, such as a spotter. So, damp your expectations — no drone pizza deliveries to your door for now. The 60-day public comment period has now closed. The review and rule-making is expected to take up to two years. Cheng believes the FAA will need to issue some interim guidance for commercial users before the proposed rule becomes final, however, because there is such interest from potential commercial users for innovation and applications.

The recent FAA announcement indicated that guidance on hobby drones will be issued in the near future. The Academy of Model Aeronautics has advocated for more education and user training of drone operators and has supported the idea that hobby drone operators be required to obtain an operator’s certificate or become a part of an organized model aircraft club. 

If FAA-proposed rules do require hobby drone operators to be part of an organized club as some expect, there is likely to be an uptick in the membership of local model airplane clubs and drone user groups accompanied by an increasing demand for more public spaces in which to fly drones. But solutions may not be simple. It is true that many park and recreation agencies have a long history of providing model aircraft clubs space to fly radio-controlled planes, but virtually none are prepared for drone users. In addition, some park managers who currently provide parkland for radio-control clubs believe that flying fixed-wing RC planes and quadcopters on the same fields is not workable or desirable. This may mean that there will be new demands for drone-flying areas and that park agencies will need to expand the search for suitable spaces for this purpose.

Policies for Public Flying in Parks Unformulated

While the popularity of drones is growing exponentially, the awareness of park and recreation agency personnel who will need to manage them is not. In response to a query on NRPA Connect, a number of park administrators said their agencies either had no policies on drones or that they were unaware of any if they did.

One conclusion was clear from conversations with park agencies across the country: Those park agency personnel who have not anticipated the boom in public drone flying will be caught unprepared both on a policy level and a management level. An important lesson is emerging — if your agency hasn’t started thinking about how to manage drones, it’s time to start thinking about it now. 

Those agencies that react with blanket prohibitions on drone flying will find them difficult to enforce and they will do a disservice to people who are just looking for a place to safely recreate. Decades of successful experience providing space for model airplane fliers have shown that park agencies can and do accommodate this kind of outdoor recreation compatibly with other activities. 

Vo says, “Most of our users are law-abiding and only want to fly. But a lot of us who want to fly safely and responsibly simply don’t have any places to fly. A lot of park agencies turn us down because they just don’t want to deal with us.” The good news for drone users like Vo is that some agencies are expressing willingness to consider how they could accommodate the drone-flying public. 

Many Agencies Anticipate Using Drones Themselves

Even if some agencies are unprepared for public drone use, quite a few are thinking about how they might use drones for a variety of management, monitoring, mapping and public safety applications. 

The requirements for obtaining a COA from the FAA to use unmanned aircraft systems for governmental or research purposes are quite rigorous, but Cleveland Metroparks (CMP) was willing go the distance, said Brian Zimmerman, executive director of CMP. “When we saw the potential, we never wavered,” he said. They have obtained a COA for a research project to monitor the Rising Valley wetlands complex, the largest freshwater wetlands in their park system. 

Stephen Mather, geographic information systems supervisor, says that to map and study the wetlands is extremely time-consuming and difficult to accomplish. By employing a small fixed-wing drone, they will be able to do 3D mapping of surface topography and plant communities as well as track the spread of invasive species, monitor stormwater events, and create other datasets in real time to better manage and protect this valuable wetland. “We will also use the drone on a forest restoration project, and we hope to use it to do an ongoing assessment of shoreline infrastructure along Lake Erie,” Mather says. “With resolution accurate to within an inch, we can create 3D maps of new construction and monitor its condition over time.”

The Future of Drones in Parks

Cheng of DJI says, “We are in the earliest stages of drone technology and it is literally improving daily.” According to Cheng, there will be reliable, redundant return-home programming; mandatory no-fly software to prevent flying in federally designated no-fly zones; more autonomy and self-aware behavior; “follow-me” technology; and much more safety-related decision-making capability. “There is no reason that a drone should ever fly into a tree or building, and every drone will have sufficient power to return home.” 

What’s on the horizon for drones in parks? Well, consider that drone fliers are already envisioning drone racing just like the old air races of the 1950s. Fly-ins, drone-building workshops and educational programs for drone users are already in the minds of forward-looking parks personnel. And the potential applications of commercial, hobby and agency-operated drones are mind-expanding. Hummingbird and nano-drones could aid in citizen science projects and enhance STEM learning opportunities for teens and adults. And what kid (under adult supervision of course) wouldn’t want to get connected to nature and the outdoors using a drone to observe and discover our natural world?

When asked if he could ever envision a future in which drone use in national parks could be common, Olson says, “Yes, probably, but the question will be where such use would be approved.”

So, what would the ideal future look like for users? Vo says, “Ideally, there would be park sites set aside for model aviation and open to users to fly their aircraft. There would be a way for users to communicate with park managers about what they were permitted to do and what they wanted to do. There would be a way for them to query the park managers about conditions and to be able to schedule times to fly. And there would be times and places where we could be able to educate others.” Possible? We’ll see.

Richard J. Dolesh is NRPA’s Vice President of Conservation and Parks.

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