That cool drone you got for Christmas with a camera hanging from its belly will now be legal to fly above Conservation Department lands — if you get a permit.
On Friday, the Missouri Conservation Commission unanimously approved a new policy allowing recreational drone use at MDC lands.
Recreational drone flyers have been banned from zooming around at nature centers and conservation areas, but now there’s a system in place to allow the practice.
“To this point, we have not allowed use of drowns by the public,” said Jennifer Battson Warren, deputy director of business at MDC. “But we know folks enjoy the outdoors in many ways, and as drones become more popular, we want to open the gate to new technology that lets people enjoy nature.”
She noted that drones were among the most popular Christmas gifts for people to receive.
But some folks might not appreciate the whining sound of a drone flying overhead, so Battson Warren said MDC will closely monitor how the new policy plays out, especially as spring arrives and drone flyers might want to take their new toys out for a spin in the forest.
Recreational drone pilots will need a special use permit from MDC before they can fly on MDC property. The permit is free and can be requested by contacting the area manager in charge of the MDC land where a person wants to fly.
Special use permit forms can also be filled out at regional MDC offices.
Battson Warren said requesting a permit doesn’t guarantee the drone pilot will get approval. At this point, all permit requests will be handled through her office.
“They’ll be considered on a case-by-case basis,” she said. “We’ll be sensitive to other kinds of uses that might be going on at that site — if there’s a hunting season going on or if there’s a weekend where we know there will be high public use.”
It will likely take about a week for a special use drone permit to be considered and for the applicant to get an answer, she added.
At MDC locations where there is typically heavy public use — the Springfield Conservation Nature Center, for example — it’s unlikely a recreational special use permit would be granted, Battson Warren said.
“I think we are going to get a lot of requests for places that we are least likely to allow them,” she noted. “Where there’s a lot of public use, we don’t want their outdoor enjoyment being compromised by a drone that might be taking their picture.”
Hunters already are barred from using drones to spot or track game, and there are penalties in place if drones are used that way in Missouri.
For now, Battson Warren said there are no penalties if a recreational drone flyer is discovered using MDC land. There likely will be a learning curve both for the public and for MDC as the new drone policy plays out.
Because drone cameras have become so good, recreational flyers might be tempted to get close-up shots of wildlife at conservation areas. That’s not a problem unless their flying results in “harassment,” an action that could result in a citation.
“If they’re hovering to get a shot, that’s OK,” she said. “But if they’re moving the drone closer, and recognizing that the group of deer they’re photographing is moving because of the drone’s approach, that could be considered harassment, yes.”
Battson Warren said visitors on MDC land who feel a drone is causing problems should call the MDC area manager, report it to the regional office or file a complaint at MDC’s website, www.mdc.mo.gov.
“I think we all have a responsibility to be good, respectful citizens, and most of the time that duty as a responsible citizen prevails,” Battson Warren said. “I hope folks recognize that these lands are theirs and everybody else’s.”
The new drone policy also specifically bars commercial use of drones on MDC lands and allows news media to use drones to record news events without a special use permit.
News media still need to follow Federal Aviation Administration regulations that require drone pilots to be certified and follow detailed rules about how, when and where drones can be flown.
The new policy also spells out how MDC staff are allowed to use drones for research or other agency-related purposes.
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