Fast forward to this week - I emailed (Merle) Lee Dickinson, the Special Park Uses Program Manager in Washington, D.C., and asked for approval to go take photos of Fort Pickens only. Here's the email that was sent:
I received a reply back from him 1 day later:Hi Lee - my name is Randall Hobbs. I an a drone enthusiast - I've been taking photos up and down Panama City Beach and areas in Destin, FL, and I was wanting to inquire whether this "ban" on drone flight within National Parks (namely Fort Pickens in the Gulf Island National Seashore) was permanent, or if there was ever a chance that this will be overturned at some point. I would like to take some photos of the fort, from a reasonable level (no higher than about 150-200 feet above at most - which falls within the FAA regulated area that I'd like to shoot from). I have an expensive drone - a DJI Phantom 4 Pro Plus. It has a 20 megapixel camera and 4K video, and while the 4K video is great, my main reason for asking this is I'd like to provide some images of the fort that could help with tourism and the like. This drone has ample features, and it's a safety first type of ordeal (because frankly, I won't take chances with my drone if there are ANY chances that it could ever end badly - the drone crashing or causing any kind of problem). I am not a business owner, so these are not for business purposes by any mean. I would just like to take a fairly short flight (about 10 minutes grand total), and get a few overhead shots of the fort - it's still a thing of beauty, and it's in the best condition that it will ever be in for my generation (I'm 43). I'd like to take photos of the fort and the surrounding bunks (all told there's about 1/8th of a mile where I'd follow the drone - never letting it out of my sight and never getting near anything or anyone (I went to the fort on Sunday about 8:00AM and walked around for almost an hour without anyone ever showing up, but I wanted to discuss this with the parks administrators to see if I could get approval to take some photos there. I would be completely okay with someone else (a park ranger for instance) going accompanying me for that time, and I'd be happy to provide a copy of the images to whomever (for free - this is not a commercial venture). I just completely enjoy scenic surroundings, and have gotten quite good at getting some good shots in, so would be interested in covering just the fort and the surrounding bunkers (nothing else - while I enjoy Gulf Islands National Seashore, I also understand the habitat and wouldn't want to cover that, at least not before I had a chance to see more of the surrounding area and make sure I wouldn't cause any issues). Again, this is a personal thing, but I'm sure the photos could be used to help bolster tourism there and I'd be glad to donate the photos for that very purpose.
I do not run a business, so drone insurance isn't available to me. I am a VERY careful pilot (as I've been flying for about 5 months with perfect flight records).
Anyway, I apologize if you're the wrong person I should be talking to about this - I just want to do things the right way.
I don't anticipate the National Park Service policy on drones to change anytime soon. That being said, there are provision in the policy for parks to allow the operation of unmanned aerial vehicles with the concurrence of the Washington Office if they make the decision. While it is very unusual for a park to approve/recommend the use of a drone for filming or photography, that decision needs to be made first by the park. I would suggest to start the process you email the superintendent at Daniel_R_Brown@nps.gov.
(Merle) Lee Dickinson
National Park Service
Special Park Uses Program Manager
So, we've passed hurdle one. Now, onto hurdle two - getting the park superintendent to approve it. Here's the email I sent to him:
I received a reply back that afternoon, and here is what he said:Hi Daniel - my name is Randall Hobbs. I got your email address from Merle Dickenson (I approached him first about this, as I didn't know who to contact). I am a Florida native (from Pensacola actually), and I would like to be able to take some photos of Fort Pickens and the surrounding bunkers, etc., with the use of a drone (I have a DJI Phantom 4 Pro, which costs an arm and a leg, which I proudly gave up to get one of these things, LOL). Either way, I'd like to spend about half an hour to an hour there (if possible), snapping some pictures. This drone has a 20 megapixel camera, as well as the ability to shoot 4K video (actually it can do both at the same time). I would like to of course do a fairly low flyover around the fort and take some photos to be shared out (because Fort Pickens is something I've seen many times growing up, and I'd like to have some pictures available for people to look at or even take) - this is not a commercial thing, in that the photographs would be free to whomever wants them. I'd gladly share every pixel with you guys as well (because, let's face it, the drone is a powerful camera with 4 props, and can get some amazing shots of the forts and bunkers). I do NOT want to fly inside of Gulf Islands Seashores outside of the forts there (I understand the natural wildlife there that needs to be protected). If allowed to do so, I will make sure I'm 100% compliant in all aspects of the FAA's rules on drones (mine is registered with the FAA as well), and would gladly provide any and all information regarding that - including my flight logs or anything else. I can also arrange to take the photos when there aren't a lot of people (maybe early in the morning on a weekend perhaps), and if there were people, I'd stay away from them (it's just best practice anyway - though this drone is loaded with sensors, which prevent actively prevents me from flying into things anyway).
This drone has given me a new camera angle to work with, as I can get shots that I just cannot on a normal camera, and people able to navigate around and position it where I want it makes it incredible easy to get some of the best shots available. I don't consider myself an expert, but I'm certainly no beginner either. I fly every single day, and have taken some really beautiful photos out here in Panama City, Panama City Beach, and Destin. If you'd like me to send you a couple of the shots I've taken, I'll be glad to do so.
Anyway, I'm hoping we can work together on this and get some great shots of the historic fort (which would - I think - help bolster tourism to the area as well).
Thank you for your consideration...
So, in other words, he not only didn't read my email (because I addressed all of the concerns listed here in his email (showing up at a time when it wasn't busy, not flying over other parts of Gulf Islands National Seashores, etc.), but then he comes back at me with a canned response. So, as of this moment, I am going over how I am going to address this. I do think it's time for me to email the President and give him a run down on the situation, and suggest that he remove the superintendent from office and put someone in who can deal with this public relations nightmare that they have started - because I am not going to sit around idly while some guy that I help pay tells me I cannot access public land that I pay for along with funds that I help to bolster when I go to the park ($15 is insanity, but such is life). I do not take know for an answer. Drones aren't going away, they are everywhere, and we (as drone owners and pilots) have the right to demand that we not be denied access to the same lands just because our expensive camera has 4 props and a remote control. I will post the letter I send to President Trump momentarily.Mr. Hobbs,
Thank you for your inquiry regarding the use of drones at Fort Pickens. Gulf Islands National Seashore contains one of the most complete collections of forts and structures relating to the evolution of seacoast defense in the United States, representing a continuum of development from the Spanish colonization of the 18th century through World War II. One of the primary purposes of the park is to afford opportunities for park visitors to understand, appreciate and enjoy these historic resources and values. Through interpretive programs we try to bring history to life by actively presenting stories of important periods of history, helping visitors to visualize and learn about the role of coastal defense to protect mainland communities. Introducing drones, which fly at relatively low levels, into this setting would be contrary to the experience the park provides. The Fort Pickens area also supports vibrant populations of various bird species. Objects of the size, configuration and movement associated with drones could startle, frighten, and/or disturb this wildlife causing disruption of normal feeding, reproduction and nesting behavior. In addition, there is also the potential for these devices to create a hazard to park visitors. Because of this I am unable to authorize your request.
Daniel R. Brown
Gulf Islands National Seashore
1801 Gulf Breeze Parkway
Gulf Breeze, FL 32563