Unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones, have been keeping government officials busy lately. They’re wrestling with a range of questions on whether any potential uses of drone technology may pose any problems. Recently the National Park Service has issued a ban on drones in national park areas. It’s a temporary ban - the service says it’s looking at a set of permanent rules that might allow some UAV use in the future – but that ruling is an opportunity for US to take a look at where Granite Staters can and can’t fly drones in New Hampshire.
And who better to fill us in than David Brooks, who writes the weekly Granite Geek science column for the Nashua Telegraph and GraniteGeek.org, and joins us most Tuesdays on All Things Considered. He did some investigating this week on where drones are ok in New Hampshire's forests and where they aren't.
So, fly or no fly? Here are some of his findings. (Remember, these rules are subject to change, so always check with authorities first.)
National parks in New Hampshire: trick question. There are no national parks in New Hampshire; in fact, Brooks says, the only national park in the Northeast is Acadia National Park in Maine. But, he says, there are properties owned and operated by the NPS that aren’t national parks. For example, there’s the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish. The site’s namesake, sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, put together timeless works of art there. Good thing he wasn’t around for the drone era, because the site is a drone-free zone. Brooks called the site and they told him that “nobody to their knowledge has ever tried to fly a drone there. Now if they do, they’ll be asked to stop.”
Appalachian Trail: No fly. The National Park Service controls the Appalachian National Scenic Trail that cuts through New Hampshire on its way between Maine and Georgia. “There is now this stretch of land cutting across NH that you cannot fly a drone over,” Brooks says. “It’s only a couple hundred feet wide in most places. So you have to fly [your drone], stop, carry it across the trail, and then take it off again.”
White Mountain National Forest: Fly… mostly. The WMNF is managed by the National Forest Service, which Brooks says is not merely a semantic difference from the National Park Service. “They have different goals – the national parks are supposed to be kept pristine for recreation. National forests, as we all know from those signs we see on the highway that say ‘land of many uses,’ are designed not just for recreation but for other uses, notably logging.” You can fly drones in the White Mountains, but note that in designated wilderness areas, drones, like large aircraft, can fly, but they can’t take off or land.
Most other places: probably ok, provided you follow general federal guidelines like flying below 500 feet and not flying for a commercial purpose. And check first, obviously.
Wilderness and wildlife are on the minds of officials as they weigh whether to allow drones in the future. There was a viral video last year from Norway about a quadcopter that came across a moose – in that case, the interaction was pretty benign, but Brooks says “there are concerns about [drones] being used to spook wildlife, people trying to film it… I mean, if I’m out hiking in the Whites, I really don’t want to have a bunch of quadcopters buzzing by me and disturbing things.”
State officials have been looking at potential UAV rules, too, mostly related to privacy among law enforcement, though Brooks says a bill approved by the House this year and tabled by the Senate would have also imposed limits on personal use – “the idea of your neighbor sending the drone over to take pictures of you while you’re in your swimming pool.” The federal government continues to look at whether to allow commercial use of drones, something people in many fields, including journalism, are hoping for. The issue over drones, Brooks says, “is a classic example of the way new technology always outruns rules and regulations and even social mores.”
We can expect more change in the rules that govern drone technology. Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis says they wanted to work on their rules now because “we wanted to get ahead of Christmas, when everyone is going to get one.” Brooks says drones themselves are changing, too – “There are so many new models coming out all the time – and you can get them for just a few hundred bucks now, and they’re not too hard to fly.” But, he adds, “I have a friend who crashed one in the Nashua River the other day, so they do have their drawbacks.”
So keep watching the skies – and maybe the forests and trails and rivers, too