What's the Deal with Flying in Parks?

Parks seem like a great spot to take the drone out: wide open spaces, beautiful scenery, and easily accessible by most people. But in the US, the rules and regulations around flying drones in parks can be confusing and depend on who owns the park. Here is a breakdown on the different types of parks you may encounter and how to best be informed of the rules and other tips to avoid any entanglements with the wrong crowd.

National Parks

The National Park wasted no time in responding to the drone rush. Unfortunately, this meant taking extreme measures and issuing an outright ban on drones. To be very clear though, the National Park concedes that the FAA has complete control of the airspace, and thus the National Park can only regulate the take-off, landing, and control of drones within the park boundaries. So, in theory, you could take off outside the park and fly over the park without breaking the rules. However, that neat little workaround makes it quite clear that the National Park does not like drones around, so it's probably best not to fly near their parks.

At the very least, the National Park boundaries are well known and you an find them on the Airspace Map or directly at Airmap. Also realize that the National Park owns many areas that are not traditional outdoor parks, such as the St. Louis Arch.

Hopefully in the future the National Park system will find ways to allow hobby and commercial drone use in a responsible way without disturbing the environment and ambiance that the National Parks provide.

State Parks

State Parks become a little more complicated, partly because you have to worry about 50 of them instead of just one, but also because many states have yet to clarify rules on drones. I've also seen a surprising amount of misinformation, either because people make assumptions or just don't want to encourage drones. Until the State Parks get their act together, here some resources for determining whether it's a good idea to fly in a state park:

  • Check the state park website for information. This should always be your first stop for the official information on drones, but you will be lucky to find any definitive answers. My home state of California actually does have a specific posting on drones. Shockingly, drones are allowed in all California State Parks, with the exception of State Wilderness Areas, Natural Preserves, and Cultural Preserves.

  • Check with each local state park. In the case of California, there is another important part of the drone post: Each District Superintendent may override the general rule that allows drones and instead prohibit drones in that district (or park). Other states have specifically not created a blanket rule and instead delegated the decision to each state park. You may need to call the state park you would like to fly within to confirm whether drone use is allowed.

  • Check with the community. Chances are, you are not the first person to try flying in a state park. Search the forums of popular drone communities to see what experiences others have had. My go-to site is Phantom Pilots. While this shouldn't replace diligence in knowing the rules, it can provide a gut check on what you can expect.

Local Parks

Local parks are those that are owned by the city, county, or similar local government. These entities are typically (though not always) the slowest to create drone regulations and have the most ambiguous rules. Due to the large number of parks, each with their own ruleset, and the relatively small size of most, it can be difficult to track down rules. Many do not have dedicated websites and instead fall under convoluted city rules. A few tips for navigating the chaos:

  • Start with the city website. Look for city-wide rules that pertain to drones, or follow the rules of model aircraft. Here is an example.

  • Look for a rules sign onsite. Most parks have a giant sign somewhere on the property that gives rules for the park, that usually include things like hours of use and prohibition of substances like alcohol and drugs. Pay attention to drones specifically, but you should also be careful to adhere to rules about motor vehicles and model aircraft.

  • Fly Cautiously. If you can't find any rules prohibiting drones, you are probably ok to fly, but remember to be extra cautious and follow all the FAA rules, especially about not flying over other people. Doing anything dangerous or careless is a quick way to upset people.

  • Avoid hovering over houses. Typically city parks are not far from people's houses. While it is generally not illegal to fly over someone's house, flying too close for too long could result in police showing up. Even if you are in the right, it makes for an annoying conversation and doesn't help with the perception of drones.

I know it may seem that parks are not friendly to drones, but there really are plenty of parks that allow drones and are a great place to fly. Being courteous and respectful of others goes a long way towards building public trust of these new flying machines. Hopefully the future will bring more clarity and gradually open up the airspace in more places.