The process of flying a drone in California (and much of the United States if we’re being honest), is riddled with hazy rules and misinformation. Sometimes a drone operator is in the wrong, and sometimes they know more than park officials who question them about it. Many of the most beautiful locations in California are protected State Park or National Park land, and though we know the National Park System’s stance on drone use (you can’t do it as of the publication of this article), the State Park rules have been a challenge to understand. Depending on who you ask and when, you get a different answer.

Today that changes, as we received more concrete, definitive rules directly from the Superintendent for Emergency Services, Law Enforcement and Emergency Services Division of the California State Park System, Scott Elliot, which contains the general guidelines that will become public on the California State Park website in the next couple weeks. In it, the Park System makes one thing immediately clear: there is no blanket ban on drones. In fact, recreational drone flying is allowed in California park systems unless posted otherwise by the district superintendent:

Drones are currently allowed in State Parks, State Beaches, State Historic Parks, State Recreational Areas, and State Vehicular Recreation Areas except where prohibited by a District Superintendent’s posted order. Posted orders may prohibit drones for numerous reasons, including: protection of threatened species; threats to cultural and natural resources; high fire danger; public safety; recreational conflicts; impacts upon visitor experience privacy; and park unit classification. Therefore, drone users should always check with their local State Park District for any specific posted orders.

Below is the full breakdown, directly from the State Park System.

Unmanned Aircraft Systems (Drones) in State Parks

Drones are currently allowed in State Parks, State Beaches, State Historic Parks, State Recreational Areas, and State Vehicular Recreation Areas except where prohibited by a District Superintendent’s posted order. Posted orders may prohibit drones for numerous reasons, including: protection of threatened species; threats to cultural and natural resources; high fire danger; public safety; recreational conflicts; impacts upon visitor experience privacy; and park unit classification. Therefore, drone users should always check with their local State Park District for any specific posted orders.

Drones in State Wilderness Areas, Natural Preserves, and Cultural Preserves:

State Park regulations prohibit the use of motorized equipment (including UASs) within wilderness areas, cultural preserves, and natural preserves (Cal. Code Regs. tit. 14, § 4351.) Therefore, drone users should always check the designation of the park unit before operating a drone.

Recreational Drones:

California State Parks recommends that recreational drone users check with their local State Park District before operating a UAS within a State Park. Each park unit may have its own posted orders. Even absent a posted order on drones, it is within the discretion of park staff to contact drone operators when drones threaten visitors, property, wildlife, or privacy. If a drone operator continues to fly in a dangerous or reckless manner, they may be asked to stop flying and remove the drone from park boundaries.

It is recommended that recreational drone operators consult the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules and regulations on the proper use of recreational drones and use common sense when operating these devices around crowded public areas, wildlife, or historic resources.

DPR requires compliance with the FAA guidelines for recreational Unmanned Aircraft Systems (http://www.faa.gov/uas/model_aircraft/):

  • Fly below 400 feet and remain clear of surrounding obstacles;
  • Keep the aircraft within visual line of sight at all times;
  • Remain well clear of and do not interfere with manned aircraft operations;
  • Do not fly within 5 miles of an airport unless you contact the airport and control tower before flying;
  • Do not fly near people or stadiums;
  • Do not fly in adverse weather conditions such as in high winds or reduced visibility;
  • Do not fly under the influence of alcohol or drugs;
  • Do not fly an aircraft that weighs more than 55 lbs;
  • Do not fly near or over sensitive infrastructure or property such as power stations, water treatment facilities, correctional facilities, heavily traveled roadways, etc.;
  • Do not be careless or reckless with your unmanned aircraft – you could be fined for endangering people or other aircraft;
  • Do not conduct surveillance or photograph persons in areas where there is an expectation of privacy without the individual’s permission.

Commercial Drones:

The FAA requires commercial drone operators to receive special authorization; either a Section 333 Exemption or a Special Airworthiness Certificate. The FAA defines commercial drone use as, among other things: filming for hire; selling aerial photography or videography; inspections for hire; surveying for hire; or flying to further a business purpose. Operating a drone for commercial purposes within a state park also requires a permit. Commercial Drone users must submit a copy of their FAA authorization to the appropriate State Park District(s). Depending on the proposed use, the District Superintendent may require a Special Event permit, Right of Entry permit, or other approval. Further, commercial photography or filming within State Park also requires a permit from the California Film Commission.  (Cal. Code Regs. tit. 14, § 4316.)

Toby Harriman Drone Shot out of Sky

Photo by Taylor Gray

Research Drones:

Drones may prove a valuable tool for scientific research and surveys. Operation of a drone for research purposes requires approval from the FAA. Before operating a drone for research purposes within a state park, please submit a copy of your FAA authorization to the appropriate State Park District(s). California State Parks requires a scientific collection permit (DPR 65) for any scientific research and surveys within a State Park.

Public Agency Drones:

The FAA requires public entities to obtain a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) to operate public aircraft. Before operating a drone for governmental purposes within a state park, please submit a copy of your COA to the appropriate State Park District(s).

This is the first time that we have seen a statement issued by the overarching California State Park System stating that drone use is not only tolerated, but allowed in select areas.

Elliot, the Superintendent for Emergency Services, told us he had just spoken about the subject of drones today with safety superintendents, and that they are required to post notices about drones at each of their districts. A problem drone operators regularly run into is a lack of visible postings regarding drone operation. Often information on websites is either vague or nonexistent, and the same goes for physical postings at the parks themselves. So naturally we asked, will operators be able to find the postings? “Sometimes our posted orders are simply posted at an entrance kiosk, or at a visitor information board at a ranger station,” Elliot told us. “But by law they must be posted, so the short answer is yes.”

resource-wilkinson-lowepro-droneguard-review5

Photo by Mike Wilkinson

That is great news for pilots who often just want a yes or no answer on the legality of a situation. Responsible drone pilots aren’t looking to break the law, only understand what it is and how it affects them.

But drone operators, this is a two way street. The reason drone flying has been such a “hassle” for those who just want to fly is that there are so many irresponsible pilots. “With drones specifically, we seem to be getting some pressure on multiple sides,” Elliot told us. “I’ve had some hostile calls in the past year from folks who have witnessed drones harassing ospreys at Mono Lake and an issue with drones buzzing boat operators in Emerald Bay, and demands as to why we’re not doing something about it. On the flip side, there are drone operators who want a place to use them recreationally. As of right now, Districts are simply addressing these issues via Superintendent Orders, as use, issues, and public involvement continue to evolve.”

One final thing of note regarding commercial flights is that the FAA requirements for obtaining a commercial license are currently changing, no longer requiring pilots to acquire a Section 333 exception. That whole process is still in flux, and isn’t expected to start rolling out until the end of this month, or later.

A DJI Phantom 2 flying near the Holuhraun volcano eruption, Bardarbunga volcanic system, Iceland.

A DJI Phantom 2 flying near the Holuhraun volcano eruption, Bardarbunga volcanic system, Iceland.

So with the rules from the FAA still not set in stone, any new commercial pilots expecting to start work immediately will find themselves a bit stalled as the rules are still being fleshed out, and the routes to doing things legally is still a bit muddy.

But luckily for recreational pilots, the path to flying over the most beautiful land in California is finally becoming clear.

Thank you to the California State Park System, specifically Scott Elliot, in his continued communication over the past few months with us regarding this issue. It is incredibly complicated, and his job is not an easy one.

  • This is fantastic news! Thanks for sharing. Now it would be great if we could work something out with the National Parks.

  • Don Teakell

    So your aware…I just found out that ALL CAL State parks in the Bay Area region are closed to drone use. As well as, ALL East Bay parks and open spaces…There is literally no place to fly drones legally in the SF Bay area.

    • How far up the coast are we talking? Does this include the Sonoma coast?

    • Adidas4275

      yeah that is too bad. 🙁

      I am sure it is just due to the sheer number of people with drones in the area.

      I cannot imagine how many people would be flying them in the one state park that allowed them 🙁

      still lame, wish it was different

  • RIch285

    I was told by State Park Police that I was commiting a misdemeanor by flying my drone at Doheny State Beach. They let me off with a warning. I was flying safely, away from people and watercraft.

  • AJ Saeteurn

    sucks to be a drone owner.. I stopped flying since last year and just started again and this article is so old that we need new infomation.