The future of unmanned aviation is filled with sci-fi-like possibilities, from pizza delivery drones to driverless taxis. For now though, consumer drones (simple models that fall outside of the military and emergency service realms) are mostly being used for photography and videography.
GoPro, the company that dominates the world of action sports videos, is launching a line of drones designed to be used with its popular and durable HD video cameras.
This kind of flying camera lends itself to taking pictures of nature from above. A quick search of video-sharing sites will reveal a number of stunning movies of birds in flight, herds of deer or horses galloping and close-ups of lions and other large predators that are too dangerous to view face-to-face.
But the appeal of these devices has nature lovers and outdoor purists worried. What would it be like if you were trying to enjoy a hike with the constant buzz of a small unmanned aircraft overhead? And how does taking these videos affect the animals and their habitat?
As the U.S. National Parks Service (NPS) has discovered, there are no easy answers to these questions. For now, all consumer drones are banned in national parks. And visitor safety is as much of a concern as habitat conservation. A security scare at Mount Rushmore, when a drone flew over the heads of visitors sitting in the main amphitheater, was cited as evidence of the need for a ban. The NPS also pointed to an incident in Zion National Park when witnesses saw a drone cause a stampede of bighorn sheep.
There's a fair bit of muscle behind these bans. People who ignore the rules can expect more than a slap on the wrist. They can be fined up to $5,000 and spend six months in prison. Though the penalties might not be as stiff, some state parks are following the NPS's lead and banning all drone traffic.
Of course, bothering wildlife isn't the only concern related to consumer drones. Privacy and security questions have prompted strict regulations in New York City and in other cities across the country. Outside of these places, however, drones are legal and can be operated without much restriction. They are only limited by Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, which require that they fly at less than 400 feet so they don't interfere with manned aircraft.
The problem with the park and city bans is that they punish everyone for problems created by a minority of drone pilots. It seems that most places are instituting outright bans until a system of permits and licenses can be set up for people who have legitimate reasons for taking videos from remote-controlled aircraft.
Even law enforcement agencies have been the subject of restrictions on drones. More than half of all U.S. states have laws that require police to get a warrant or have probable cause before using drones for surveillance. Basically, they have to abide by the same rules that are used for in-person searches and surveillance.
Nature's beauty seen by drones
All issues aside, there is no denying the beauty of nature videos taken from drones. And camera drones are useful for a lot more than making cool videos. Farmers use them to inspect crops and herds, and conservationists can use them to check on wild animal populations.
In Malaysia and Indonesia, the Orangutan Conservancy uses unmanned planes to count and map local primate populations. The tropical jungles are so thick that it would take weeks (or even months) to do this on foot. With the drones, detailed and updated maps can be produced in a matter of hours. The World Wildlife Fund has plans to deploy remote controlled aircraft in Africa to find poachers before they strike.
Several U.S. agencies, including the Department of the Interior, use surplus military drones to map lands for monitoring and conservation. With all these efforts underway, it should be simple to come up with rules for piloting this kind of aircraft in natural areas. Drone use is on the rise for fun and practical reasons, so there's little point in placing bans and hoping that the issues simply go away. Like it or not, drones aren't going to fly off into the sunset anytime soon.
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