Drone manufacturer Skydio is under fire for promoting a video they made of a rollerblader using their R1 selfie drone as he rolls along the West Thumb Geyser Basin boardwalk at Yellowstone National Park.
The video appeared on Instagram with the caption “Thermal tour a la rollerblade” and was viewed over 10,000 times in one week before it was taken down due to complaints.
Drones are banned at national parks. (Rollerblading is also banned on the Geyser’s boardwalk, but we don’t think that was the main reason people got upset.)
The fact that Skydio didn’t know, or perhaps didn’t care, about the ban is concerning. Another detail getting people worked up is that although the flight clearly seems to take place in Yellowstone it was geo-tagged as shot in Iceland, which might indicate an intentional effort to get around the flight ban.
Navigating U.S. Drone Laws
Navigating drone laws in the U.S. can be difficult.
A drone shot taken legally in Wyoming (i.e., not in a national park)
When flying anywhere here you have to contend with federal drone laws, state drone laws, city and county ordinances, and special federal restrictions on drone flights, not to mention local law enforcement’s understanding of what you can and can’t do, which often might not be derived from any actual laws (we’ve heard stories of FAA-certified pilots operating a drone legally for professional purposes who are told by police that they can’t fly in a particular location, with no further explanation given).
In addition to this morass of laws, local and state drone laws often conflict with federal drone laws. Even though federal law has pre-eminence, and therefore should make conflicting local or state laws void, the truth is that you could still be jailed for flying federally approved flights in violation of local laws.
So yes, it can be hard to know where to fly.
On the other hand, if Skydio did really change or somehow alter their geo-tag on purpose, that could indicate that they knew what they were doing was illegal.
And even if they didn’t know, the oversight is still problematic. There is a difference, after all, between a hobbyist who wants to get a great shot while on vacation making this kind of mistake and a drone company creating a video for promotional purposes.
[Want to know where the best places to fly a drone are? Check out our Where to Fly a Drone guide, which lists the best places to fly in major cities throughout the U.S.]
Drone Problems at Yellowstone
Skydio is not the first to fly illegally at Yellowstone since drones were banned there in 2014, and they almost certainly won’t be the last. (Drones were banned at all national parks that year.)
Yellowstone officials report that in 2018 there were at least 40 illegal drone flights in the park.
A non-drone shot of a Yellowstone geyser
Some of these illegal flights led to citations and mandatory court appearances but only about $1,000 in fines was paid out in total. Given that flying in a national park can lead to up to six months in jail and $5,000 in fines, $1,000 total paid by 40 pilots seems like a very small amount, and probably not much of a deterrent.
Regarding the Skydio video shot on the West Thumb Geyser Basin boardwalk, Yellowstone park spokeswoman Morgan Warthin said that they are aware and will be investigating the incident.
What’s important to recognize is that there are so many incidents of drone use that we deal with. Visitors using drones in Yellowstone is a problem.
– Morgan Warthin, Spokeswoman for Yellowstone National Park
One of the most famous—or perhaps infamous—illegal drone flights at Yellowstone was that of a Dutch tourist named Theodorus Van Vliet. In the fall of 2014 Van Vliet crashed his DJI Phantom into the Grand Prismatic Spring and was subsequently fined $3,000.
Since the crash scientists who study the spring have expressed concern that debris from the drone could clog one of its vents, or that the drone could melt and change the microbial mats that help make the spring so unique.
What do you think—did Skydio know it was breaking the law by flying a drone at Yellowstone, or is the whole thing a big mistake? Share your thoughts in this thread on the UAV Coach community forum.