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.