While hobbyist drones grow in popularity, most parks won’t allow them, regulations are many and fliers can risk public censure. But there are a few public places to fly if you received one for a gift.
Like them or not, hobbyist-style drones have landed in our consciousness:
• “Drones for Dad,” trumpeted a headline in a pre-Father’s Day ad circular in The Seattle Times.
• “Why was a drone flying in my favorite wildlife park?” a Times reader in Kirkland griped in a recent Rant & Rave column.
• When another Times reader’s aerial photo of a lovely mountain scene was a top contender in a May photo contest, judges disqualified it after realizing it was taken from a drone in Olympic National Park — where use of drones is prohibited.
So if every dad got a drone on Sunday, where can they legally fly them? That’s a bit of a quandary. A check with a few public agencies revealed that they are not allowed in:
• Most Washington State Parks locations.
• Most King County parks.
And except in very limited circumstances all national parks bar drones, at least for the time being, under a 2014 ruling by then-National Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis. His edict cited “unacceptable impacts such as harming visitors, interfering with rescue operations, causing excessive noise, impacting [views] and disturbing wildlife.”
“If you’re miles from nowhere and all of a sudden there’s a drone it really takes away from your wilderness experience,” Olympic National Park spokeswoman Penny Wagner adds to that.
What about Juanita Bay Park, where Kirkland resident Kurt Stierle recently encountered a drone flying near park boardwalks that thread a lily pad-laced shore rich with wildlife?
“I’m kind of a nature person and it’s a great little park, a gorgeous place for birds — there’s usually a heron and a bunch of turtles sunning themselves,” said Stierle, who wrote the rant in The Seattle Times. “I was there on one of those wonderful sunny days with picnickers everywhere and birdwatchers with their binoculars. I was walking along with a friend when all of a sudden I heard it — the hornets buzzing over my head.”
The sound came from a drone, flown by remote control by a man who appeared to be showing a teenage daughter how to fly it.
For the uninitiated, most drones flown by hobbyists are small battery-powered “quadcopters,” meaning they fly like a helicopter with four buzzing rotors. High-end drones weigh no more than a few pounds and measure a foot across, or less.
“I just felt like it was such a wrong kind of park for that,” said Stierle, who worried especially how a drone might affect bird life.
There’s no written policy pertaining to drones in Kirkland’s parks, according to Jason Filan, city parks manager, but his agency discourages such use. “When we see people doing it we ask them not to because it’s a safety issue … You never quite know the capability of the person flying it.”
He said Juanita Bay is a much-loved park where “no matter if it’s an off-leash dog or a drone, people can get pretty upset.”
“There are drone haters out there,” said Dale Johnson, of Seattle, who started using drones three years ago as a tool to supplement his passion for photography. He has twice won Seattle Times reader-photo contests with his aerial images.
Johnson, who works in aviation safety for Boeing and interacts with civil-aviation authorities worldwide, has educated himself on drone-flight guidelines set out by the Federal Aviation Administration, such as:
• Don’t fly above 400 feet.
• Keep your drone within sight.
• Never fly near other aircraft, especially near airports.
• Never fly over groups of people.
But a look at YouTube (Google “Seattle drone”) shows that not all drone fliers heed those protocols, as evidenced by multiple video clips taken from drones circling the top of the 605-foot-high Space Needle, which rarely doesn’t have people beneath it. (A drone even crashed into the Needle this past New Year’s Eve.)
“There’s lots of stuff that’s not done by the guidelines,” Johnson acknowledges.
Getting spanked by online commenters is sometimes the only punishment for breaking rules.
“I did fly once in a national park in Canada, down by a river gorge with nobody around, and I posted it and got lots of heat,” Johnson said.
He also lost control of a drone once. Traveling in Vietnam, he was flying at famed Ha Long Bay when his drone ran into one of the towering limestone karsts. But some newer drones have technology such as collision-avoidance sensors and a “fly home” function that kicks in if a signal is lost or the battery is dying.
Seattle parks prohibit drones as part of a long-standing rule against flying any motorized model aircraft in parks, spokeswoman Rachel Schulkin said.
“We’ve had many experiences of people getting hit by drones, or animals being disturbed or even birds abandoning a nest. The noise drones make and the picture-taking aspect — the privacy issue — are a concern for parks.”
Johnson minimizes the noise issue.
“They’re no worse than a car or motorcycle driving by, and once they get up high enough you can’t hear them,” he said. And that’s improving with progressing miniaturization. In a demonstration, his newest, smallest drone, a DJI Mavic, was significantly quieter than a larger model he acquired eight months earlier.
If someone complains? Johnson isn’t out to annoy. “I just leave and go somewhere else.”
Schulkin said the most recent issue in Seattle parks arose when a drone operator flying from Waterfront Park sent a drone right in close to the glassed-in compartments of the waterfront Ferris wheel, the Seattle Great Wheel.
“It was a real safety concern,” she said. As a result, “no drones” signs are being posted at the park.
So, where can you fly drones in public? Some spots include:
• King County’s Marymoor Park, in Redmond, where an area is set aside for model-aircraft flying. But the site is managed by the Marymoor Radio Control Club (mar-c.org), which you must join ($40 a year) before flying, and there are several other hoops through which to jump.
• National forests. While national parks are off-limits, national forests, for the most part, are not, if you stay out of designated wilderness areas and follow Forest Service guidelines.
• Some school-athletic fields (check before you fly). Seattle Public Schools grounds, for example, are open to public use when there are no official school activities underway. There’s no rule prohibiting drone use, spokeswoman Kim Schmanke said. “We are mindful of the growing use of drones, however, and may review administrative rules and procedures in the future.”
Be careful out there, though. When Dale Johnson flew a drone too close to a yacht at Elliott Bay Marina where a couple was out on deck enjoying a sunset, the boat owner complained to the marina manager, saying he wanted to shoot the drone out of the sky.
“He’d be in more trouble for shooting it than I would be for flying it,” Johnson said.