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Unmanned Drone Crashes Into Famous Hot Spring At Yellowstone National Park


Grand Prismatic Spring. Photo by alh1 via Creative Commons and flickr.

A ban on the use of drones in National Park Service areas has become a hot topic this summer, and that was literally the case last weekend at Yellowstone National Park when one of the unmanned aircraft operated by a visitor crashed into the largest hot spring in the park. Park officials now have to figure out what threat the debris may pose to the spring itself, and whether to attempt to locate and remove it.

The incident, which was witnessed by other park visitors, occurred last Saturday.

The drone now lies somewhere beneath the surface of Grand Prismatic Spring, which is located in the Midway Geyser Basin.  A park publication notes this popular natural feature "has the distinction of being the park’s largest hot spring. It measures approximately 370 feet  in diameter and is over 121 feet deep. A description of this spring by fur trapper Osborne Russell in 1839 also makes it the earliest described thermal feature in Yellowstone that is definitely identifiable."

Finding, and Removing, the Drone Could be a Challenge

I spoke with park spokesman Al Nash by phone about what, if anything, is planned in terms of attempting to remove the drone, and he summarized some of the challenges involved.

"Grand Prismatic is big, deep and hot," Nash said. "First we have to see if we can locate it. And then it begs the question, what's the potential threat to this thermal feature leaving it in place, versus what we might do, what impacts we might have in attempting to remove it. Until we know where it is, we can't answer those questions."

Unfortunately, the park has plenty of experience dealing with a variety of foreign objects in these springs. "It's not unique for us to deal with something that has been put by people into a thermal feature," Nash noted.

The extent of problems with drones has varied from park to park. "Some other sites have experienced some significant activity of this nature in recent months. We had not really seen that in Yellowstone until this summer. So, this is a relatively new phenomenon for us," Nash said.

The Second Drone Crash Into Water This Summer at Yellowstone

"We had one other instance when one of these things crashed into the water, in Yellowstone Lake near the marina at Grant Village. Instead of hot deep water, that's cold water! We were able to retrieve that device."

While fans of the drones may chafe at restrictions on their use, the devices are receiving more and more negative attention from other visitors. "We have had an increasing number of visitor complaints to staff about people using unmanned aircraft in the park," Nash said.

I asked Nash if Yellowstone was unique in any sense in terms of drone activity, and if there might be concerns about risk of a similar crash into a crowd of people at a location such as Old Faithful.

"In the broadest sense, our issues at any one of the NPS sites are going to be about visitor safety and resource protection," Nash said. "In Yellowstone, that takes a little different nuance, because of the nature of the place. We have large gatherings of people at places like Old Faithful boardwalk preparing to watch the geyser erupt in the summer."

"This is a great wildlife viewing park, so the potential for either intentional or unintentional harassment of wildlife may be greater here than in some other locations," Nash continued. "Again, just think of the fragile nature of some of our thermal features; they are one of the things that make Yellowstone so unique, so these items [drones] do pose a threat here."

In this recent situation at Grand Prismatic Spring, the park does have information about the drone's owner, and the incident continues to be under investigation.


Their propellers can be lethal should they strike a person, pet, or wild animal. As to retrieval, maybe they'll have to commission a drone submarine that can surface, start its propellers, and fly off with the junk......

Here's a drone video that showed up this morning on the Smithsonian Magazine website.  It's some footage of a flight over Vermillion Cliffs National Monument in southern Utah and northern Arizona.  Be sure to read the entire article that accompanies the video. 

Here's a link to the video:  (I"m sorry, but the link doesn't want to work.  But if you clip it and insert it into your browser's search window, it does.)


The photographer makes some interesting comments:

One challenge Greszko has had to face is the official banning of drones in national parks, though he wasn’t very surprised by this ruling. "These small helicopters are annoying, disruptive, potentially dangerous, and rather invasive. But they’re also incredible, unprecedented creative tools, so finding responsible ways and locations to shoot – without bothering anyone – is a major goal." Greszko, who captured the footage above before the ban was put in place, typically films in very isolated areas, going out of his way to be as considerate and invisible as possible. Drones allow him to capture the world from unique perspectives that one could never experience on their own two feet.

Vixen was killed when someone stuffed a log about four inches in diameter and two feet long into its vent.  Minute was stuffed full of rocks.  Not accidental at all.  But I will add that those things took place back a long time ago.  I don't know, but hope that the extensive boardwalk systems have helped prevent that.  Yet Morning Glory Pool still collects several pounds of coins every year.

Accidental dumping into features is a constant occurance.  I can't count the number of trail guides I've seen in features -- hopefully not deliberate.  Then there are the Kleenexes, sandwich bags, caps and hats, and other miscellaneous detritis.

Not to mention what happened to Handkerchief Pool and Morning Glory Pool. 

AFAIC, they need to throw the book at this person (jail time and the cost of retrieval at the very least, then publicize the heck out of it as a deterrent.  I wish they'd do more to people who throw *anything* in the thermal features or deface them.

Thanks Lee.  That's interesting and quite disappointing to hear that people would actually throw trash in a hot spring.

Zeb, although Grand Prismatic is probably large enough that it can simply absorb the thing, many other hot springs and geysers have been clogged and killed by trash.  Minute and Vixen in the Norris Basin are two that come to my mind immediately -- and I know there have been many others.

Yellowstone's thermal features are surprisingly fragile.


Nobody's arguing that throwing trash in a hot spring (whether in a NP or not) is a good thing.  I'm asking what kind of threat it's actually posing.  

I'll post this clip from KSL TV news in Salt Lake again.  It fits right in with this story.

RC airplanes are not usually flown in places like Yellowstone.  The paranoia and suspicion around drones is at least partly driven by the current fear of Big Brother that is being pushed by many of our fear-mongering radio talkers.

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