Drones in Wilderness

You can’t fly drones in federal Wilderness.  Not much debate on that, either from the legal side, or I would contend the philosophical one.  If the essential spirit of the Wilderness Act is the tightrope of permitting/encouraging human access on the landscape while using restrictions on technology to reduce impact, aircraft restrictions are fitting.  Though drones won’t (yet) allow humans to land on a gravel bar, they do very much in the moment massively expedite the reach of the human mind.  The Wilderness consists in wildness, which in turn consists in the unknown, or human finitude.

That being said, I think it is appropriate to make a public issue of the frequent, often egregious violations of this rule.  Like when one of the best living adventure filmers does it, or even just these guys (Warning: Bro factor 1000).  Like with commercial filming permits, on first examination violations can seem innocuous.  And just like with commercial film permits, especially in Wilderness, anything beyond a cursory examination reveals the spiritual impact of commercial exposure to be considerable.

The problem in the modern area is defining commercial.  Elsewhere in the 50 Project Cody Townsend answers a reader question about film permits in Wilderness being notoriously difficult/impossible to get by saying that (paraphrase) his ski trips and youtube series are personal projects, and thus not subject to the permit requirement.  Companies like Salomon, whose logos appear in the video intro, sponsor him personally, not the project specifically.  This rational is both credible and absurd, and highlights the slippery nature of the commercial use question.  Bjarne Salen’s time does not I assume come cheap, and if isn’t being paid outright to film each ski trip, he surely enjoys a share of the youtube and sponsor revenues.  Professional cinematographers produce slicker, “better”, more accessible and evocative content, and thus their impact is greater, potentially of another category, and if so should be required to hold to commercial regulations when filming in Wilderness.

One of my favorite passsages of the Wilderness Act concerns the “increasing population” and “expanding settlement and growing mechanization” being cause to avoid “leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition.”  It seems fitting that in the information age the impact of knowledge be placed within the broader scope of mechanization, and thus legislated away for those big wild places we’ve chosen to set aside as reservoirs of the unknown.  So no drones in Wilderness, and let others know why they ought to do the same.


7 responses to “Drones in Wilderness”

  1. Well said.

    I fly UAVs for work, and think the impacts of the democratization of drones on both the known and unknown are only beginning to be revealed. We now have drones that weigh less than 250 grams (and thus are exempt from FAA registration, though not airspace regulations) that can shoot video in 2.7 K and have excellent cameras.

    Between the tempo of technological development and the near-impossibility of enforcing Wilderness airspace regulations for drones outside of the ex post facto, the success of No Drones in Wilderness in a meaningful way will be a tall order.

    Be it public shaming, greater consequences, or increased oversight, I think it will take a little bit of all those things. Having had many a debate on this topic, I think the battleground lies in those philosophical reasons.

  2. The timing…
    On last weekend’s overnight a hidden operator followed me with a drone for about an eighth of a mile down a trail. I was so heated I would’ve fought somebody…

    1. Super weird. I had never seen a drone in the air until one hovered over our backyard for a few minutes last summer. I was taken aback at how loud it was, even 100 feet up.

  3. No means NO.
    A hidden operator …….my god, I truly understand the anger.
    Thx for this Post.

  4. Craig I think for situations like that the FAA regs should change. Let people shoot it down.

    On another note. I think there could be some interesting possibilities with delivery drones. Imagine hiking the PCT and having food and supplies delivered in the non wilderness sections. If it got out of hand it would be silly of course. On the other hand I’m intrigued by the possibility of hiking a couple months and never setting foot in a town. Just get resupplied by drones at road crossing every 5 days or so. Done right it could enhance the experience.

  5. Stewart Spooner Avatar
    Stewart Spooner

    Just thinking aloud here, but there seems a principled if not practical argument for limiting the media that exploits wilderness ….preserving the primacy and discovery of raw experience etc.

  6. Absolutely. Drones are commonly used to “privatize public space,” kind of like when cellphones became ubiquitous and the “loud talker” emerged. Tech is being abused in the name of greed (just as all inventions)… and we MUST draw the line somewhere. I truly hope an economical “fix” emerges. Maybe a way to aim a device at a drone and disable it without harming anyone. Once can hope.

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