by Jonathan Beck
Northland Community & Technical College
NSF ATE DroneTECH Principal Investigator
Published in Midwest Flyer – June/July 2018 issue
I was recently asked the question, “What are the restrictions for flying drones in federal wilderness areas?” It seems like a straight forward question, but as you dig into the details, the answer is not so easy. The answer requires an understanding of the complexities of FAA regulations for drone operators. Some additional resources may provide helpful information.
I am not a lawyer and my response should not be construed as legal advice. I will provide my review and understanding as it relates to the question. Responsible drone operators recognize the need to do research and conduct safe operations. I feel trying to do the right thing and giving people common courtesies goes a long way in alleviating problematic situations.
To begin, I would advise going to the source about aviation and drone rules and regulations. The Federal Aviation Administration is responsible for regulating aviation activities including drones. There are several publications and documents where you may find useful information. These may include:
• United States Code (USC)
• Code of Federal Regulations (CFR)
• Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR)
• Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM)
• Advisory Circulars (AC)
It is important to understand the FARs (which are a part of the CFR) and USC are regulatory in nature and the equivalent of law. The AIM and AC are not regulatory, but they are advisory in nature and help maintain compliance with the FARs and USC. This distinction is important as you get into the details of why this question may be asked.
One might go back to the Wilderness Act of 1964. This act was designed to preserve the sanctity and seclusion of our nation’s wilderness areas for all to enjoy. As such the act prohibited the use of motorized vehicles within the boundary of the wilderness area. Drones would fall under this category which does not allow them to operate on the ground, therefore prohibiting taking off and landing within the boundary, except under the same special considerations for all other aircraft.
According to the AIM and VFR Sectional Charts: All aircraft are requested to maintain a minimum altitude of 2,000 feet above the surface of lands and waters administered by the NPS, FWS, or USFS Wilderness areas. FAA Advisory Circular (AC 91-36C), “Visual Flight Rules (VFR) Flight Near Noise Sensitive Areas,” defines the surface as: the highest terrain within 2,000 feet laterally of the route of flight, or the uppermost rim of a canyon or valley. Although the AIM is not regulatory, and this is only a request, the AIM provides best practices to help keep you compliant with the regulations. We’ll come back to this after a review of USC and CFR, which do provide an unlawful reference to certain aviation activities.
You may also see some wilderness areas on a sectional chart that do have special restrictions. Some even have prohibited airspace surrounding them making it illegal to conduct drone operations. In Minnesota, the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area is a good example in which aircraft are not authorized to fly from the surface up to 4,000 feet.
If you turn to the USC and CFR Under 16 USC and 50CFR: Pilots are warned that it is unlawful at any altitude to use an aircraft to harass any wildlife. Harass is defined to mean disturb, worry, molest, rally, concentrate, harry, chase, drive, herd or torment. This is probably not the only indirect regulation on the books that may be considered when thinking about operating a drone around these types of sensitive areas.
Here is where interpretation may be key. If you push the limits by operating in an area that raises many questions like what you see here, it may or may not necessarily be in violation of the regulations pertaining to aviation. However, someone else may consider your activities as violations of other USCs and CFRs. I think it would be easy for an enforcement officer to make a case that you could have been harassing wildlife if you are operating anywhere close to any wildlife in a wilderness area. Conducting these types of operations may open you up for unintended liabilities.
As you can see, what appears to be a straight forward question may have you scratching your head when you start looking for the answer. The FAA website is a great resource especially for drone operators new to the aviation community.
Another great resource is your Flight Standards District Office (FSDO). Each state has a FSDO and they can help guide you in the correct direction on questions like this.
At the end of the day, I believe it boils down to where I started the conversation. Do your best to make good faith efforts by doing your research and homework, and always exercise common courtesies by communicating with others, whether required or not.