For those who unwrapped drones over the holidays, the view of Minnesota's natural beauty stands to get better in this new year.
That's because the woods, waters, bluffs and rocks around the state often appear even more spectacular when seen from the bird's-eye view of a drone camera. The sights can be so compelling that the state is considering using drones to capture images to promote state parks and forests.
"Most parks, most scenic places, they look better from the air," said Mike Israel, chief executive of Minneapolis-based AirVuz, a website hosting thousands of aerial videos and photos drone users have shot in Minnesota and around the world. "They're making a commercial for that location even if that's not their intention."
Drones were among the hottest gifts, so many new models likely are roaming the sky. Projected holiday sales of 1.6 million units accounted for nearly half the 3.4 million drones sold in all of 2017, according to the Consumer Technology Association.
Concerns about safety, privacy and noise, however, have grown with the increasing number of drones.
Wherever you fly your drone, follow these Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules: Don't fly higher than 400 feet. Don't fly over people. Don't fly within five miles of airports. Don't go near stadiums or emergency responders and never near firefighting operations. Don't interfere with manned aircraft. Keep your drone within sight at all times.
Drones weighing more than roughly half a pound must be registered with the FAA. There's a $5 fee and you must label your drone — or unmanned aircraft system (UAS in FAA terms) — or risk facing civil and criminal penalties. (More information: knowbeforeyoufly.org).
Now — if your new drone hasn't crashed or gotten stuck in a tree or family member's hair yet — just where can you fly it in the great outdoors?
First, here's where you can't use your drone: Minnesota state parks; national parks in Minnesota and across the country; the Hennepin County city of St. Bonifacius, which imposed what apparently was one of the country's first drone bans in 2013. (In fact, check with city or county governments about drone use in their parks and open areas.)
State forests, then, appear to be the most drone-friendly public lands in Minnesota. Still, officials discourage buzzing campgrounds in state forests, which also may contain private or government property within their boundaries.
Things could get confusing Up North. Drones are allowed to fly in the Superior National Forest. But they're strictly prohibited in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) — even though the Boundary Waters lie within Superior's boundaries.
Here in question-and-answer form are the results of a low pass over the legal landscape pertaining to recreational drone use on public lands in Minnesota. (Permits typically are required for commercial drone use on state or federal lands; contact location managers or agencies in charge of the area in advance):
Q: Can someone fly a drone in a Minnesota state park?
Amy Barrett, parks and trails division information officer, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources: "They're not allowed. Our concerns and why we don't allow drones is that they may interfere with wildlife; they may create noise and visual disturbances that interfere with people's natural enjoyment of a park; there are some privacy issues too about what people might capture with a drone and then what they do with that footage afterward. These are areas where people might not expect to be filmed. They're trying to get away from technology."
Tom Buker, chief pilot, DNR enforcement division:
"The FAA recognizes drones as aircraft. No aircraft are allowed to land at a state park. We don't want to ruin the park experience for people who are there to enjoy the nature, the quiet and all the good stuff that our parks offer."
Q: What happens if someone does fly a drone in a state park?
Barrett: "They're asked to stop. I don't think anyone's been arrested over it because we're trying to raise awareness. They can put the drone in the car and still enjoy the park."
Q: If state parks are out, where can you fly a drone on public land?
Buker: "You can utilize your drone in a state forest. If you want to go to Paul Bunyan State Forest and fly a drone and look around, go have fun. There are going to be fewer people and people are usually spread out a little more. There are no restrictions other than they're still held to FAA [requirements]."
Barrett: "I haven't found a rule that specifically prohibits drones in state forests. So while they're technically allowed, we hope that people use common sense and treat other campers and wildlife respectfully. ...
... We [DNR parks and trails] manage state forest campgrounds. But forestry [division] still has responsibility for land designated as state forests. Given those definitions in law, the state park rules don't apply specifically to state forest campgrounds. … If campers were starting to complain about it or if there were reports of wildlife being harassed then I think we would obviously address that. But we're not aware of anything like that taking place currently."
Richard Peterson, forest recreation program, DNR forestry division:
"Unlike state parks, we do not have any rule that would make it unlawful to operate drones within the boundaries of or over state forest lands. But we share their concerns, whether noise or privacy, about operating over campgrounds. ...
... One thing about our state forest ownership is that it is not necessarily a solid block of state ownership. There may be homes, farms or other kinds of uses that are within the boundaries of a state forest. "
Q: Can hunters use drones?
Barrett: "[Drones] are considered electronic devices for the purposes of hunting and therefore are not allowed, not considered sportsmanlike when people are out hunting. In the same way you can't use cellphones and other ways of giving yourself or your hunting partners an advantage on where the deer are at a given moment or other wildlife, drones would be considered in that same category."
Q: Can I fly in the Superior National Forest?
Kris Reichenbach, public affairs officer, Superior National Forest:
"Yes, but you have to comply with FAA regulations. We recognize that this is an exciting new way of exploring the national forest. They may be looked at as toys, but there are restrictions on their use. We are pursuing legal action against folks that are using the drones inappropriately on the forest. We've been trying to push education and awareness at the same time through posters and social media campaigns especially when we have fire operations where drones can interrupt important work and create a safety hazard."
Q: Can I fly in the Boundary Waters?
Reichenbach: "They are totally prohibited in the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area. There are three federal regulations that we base the prohibition on. One is an executive order, signed by President Truman [which beginning in 1951 banned all aircraft below 4,000 feet in the BWCAW]. The 1964 Wilderness Act [which prohibits "motorized equipment" and "mechanical transport" in wilderness areas] applies to all federal designated wilderness areas including the Boundary Waters. FAA regulations reinforce that protection for wilderness areas."
Q: How is the state DNR using drones?
Jennifer Corcoran, remote sensing program consultant/project manager of a team studying DNR use of drones: "The DNR doesn't officially own drones, but we have a number of programs that have started to contract with third-party drone companies. We look at drones as a tool and the data that comes out of them as ancillary information that would enhance the work that we're already doing. For our own public relations, we may fly some parks to showcase them and better explain the beauty from that perspective. The idea has come up of contracting with some drone firm to create a social media package around our state forests or state parks that we might tie with other kinds of outreach or communication."
Todd Nelson is a freelance writer from Woodbury.