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Flying Drones at National Parks Can Result in Penalties, Fines

Some drone operators found out about regulations the hard way, as the parks try to deal with the new technology.

Drones are becoming increasingly ubiquitous, but the rules and regulations on where, when and how they can be used are still hazy at best.

Many drone owners know that they should keep their devices away from airports and downtown Washington, D.C., but they might be surprised to find out that they also can’t use them in national parks.

The allure is clear — Big Bend, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon and other national parks can offer spectacular views when filmed from above. But those who try to do it with their drones can face penalties and fines.

Related: Fail to Register Your Drone? You Could Be Hit With $27K Fine

Brian Needle ran into that problem when he attempted to put a camera high above Virginia’s Great Falls National Park using his drone.

Needle said the park is "one of the most beautiful places" nearby and he was having a wonderful day capturing that beauty from the sky — until he was abruptly interrupted and fined $70.

National park guidelines say that all types of aircraft are banned from parks "other than at locations designated pursuant to special regulations."

Specific unmanned aircraft regulations were put in place in July 2014, said U.S. National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis. "I needed to sort of draw the line" when drone use spiked, Jarvis said.

The drones are prohibited because their presence can be disturbing, not only to people trying to peacefully enjoy the parks, but also to wildlife. Drones "can interfere with, let's say, nesting birds or wildlife that is, you know, high on the mountain," Jarvis said.

"We had an incident with a drone chasing bighorn sheep and actually separating the adults from the young," Jarvis said.

In another drone mishap, a German national’s drone crashed into a lake at Yellowstone National Park, forcing a park diver to fish it out. The man, Andrea Meissner, was fined and banned from the park for a year.

Fines for flying drones in a national park can exceed $1,000. Needle, who said he wasn’t aware of the ban when he flew his drone, was fined $70.

Related: FAA Says More Than 45K People Register Drones in First Two Days

Still, Needle said he will be back to the park without a drone because he understands the reasoning behind the rule, and he admits that bringing a drone to Great Falls was "not so smart."

"With the increase in popularity and everybody's getting one ... I can see with you know dozens or hundreds of them out there on a singular day would be a big problem," Needle said.