When you hear a buzzing sound overhead these days, there’s a good chance you are being stalked by more than mosquitoes.
In a few short years, the proliferation of drones has threatened to change the ways we fish, hunt and enjoy the outdoors. Out in the field or on the water, you may no longer be alone.
For some perspective on the number of people buying and flying these propeller-driven cameras, realize that in the first few weeks after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began its required registration process last December 21, some 181,000 hobbyists registered their drones, or as the FAA calls them, “unmanned aircraft systems” (UAS).
Meanwhile, the FAA estimates that another 400,000 people unwrapped drones last Christmas, and this motorized market is just beginning to rev up. Prices have plummeted as an increasing number of manufacturers develop new models and fight for market share.
As with many fast-evolving technologies, there are plenty of promising applications as well as some unsettling fears. For sportsmen, who may be intrigued by their use but also fear their abuse, there is no shortage of questions. Here’s a look at where the technology is today, where it may be headed, and the ethical questions facing hunters and anglers.
WHY DRONES MAKE US PAUSE
Suppose, for example, an elk hunter used a drone to locate a big bull in heavy cover from above, providing him an eye in the sky that didn’t require hiking through tough terrain? It’s easy to envision drones being used to locate deer, pronghorn or other types of big game.
Such a scenario played out in Alaska, where wildlife troopers heard about a drone-assisted moose kill. Though it has long been illegal to hunt the same day you fly in Alaska (in order to prevent someone from spotting a moose or bear, landing and shooting the animal), it wasn’t at the time illegal to use a drone while hunting. Alaska’s game board responded by quickly passing a regulation making it illegal to use a drone while hunting. Many other states have now passed similar rules.
Still, the potential to use a drone unethically or even illegally only seems limited by human imagination. But in reality, how feasible is it to find game animals this way?
WHAT DRONES CAN DO
The idea that some unethical hunter might use a drone to locate a whitetail buck or a bear is more fear than reality right now, according to Jason Miller, owner of Raven 6 Studios, who’s been utilizing drones for TV shows, including those on Outdoor Channel and Sportsman Channel. “We use drones to help tell the story,” says Miller. “An aerial view gives a sense of where we are taking the viewer. We don’t use them to scout, spot game or when hunting. Even if someone tried to, they’d find this technology has a lot of limitations.”
Marc Baird, owner of Water Marc Productions, a studio that produces six hunting shows including “The Legends of the Fall,” agrees with Miller. “Drones sound like a swarm of bees overhead,” he said.
“If you get a drone near a deer or other game animal, it would likely spook the game. Not that that’s what we do. We use drones solely to get another camera angle to showcase the terrain being hunted. We don’t scout or bother game with them. We use them because an aerial view is not just cool to see, but can show our viewers a pressure point we’re talking about hunting, for hunting deer and so on.”
Still, a drone that sounds like a “swarm of bees” could be used to flush waterfowl out of an off-limits marsh or field so someone could push them to waiting shooters. But as any duck or goose hunter will tell you, that scenario would take just the right setup for even the most unethical person to pull off.
Could drones be used to, say, push deer out of a woodlot? According to Miller, that really isn’t realistic with today’s drone technology. “Federal regulations say that drones must stay within sight of the person flying them,” he noted.
“As I said, we follow every law, but even if someone were to break the law it would be very difficult to navigate a drone through forests and thickets to push deer. The drone would crash into tree limbs. Also, when drones lose contact with you — their range isn’t typically all that far — many models will fly straight back to their starting point. Many of the affordable models won’t go up and around obstacles when they do this. They’ll fly right into a tree.”
Baird says, “I mostly use DJI’s Phantom 2. It gets me great aerial shots. That’s all we use it for, but if someone wanted to unethically spot game or whatever with this drone or the others I’ve used, they’d have a hard time. I typically lose a signal around 500 yards. Also, though I use an iPad to watch its camera feed as I fly it, navigating around tree limbs and so on isn’t practical.”
Drones, of course, can be used — with many limitations — to see onto neighboring properties. But you can already see aerial views of properties via Google Earth without a drone. The fear that a flying drone might spy on you as you hunt on private land — or could even peek in your windows at home — is possible but probably over-hyped.
Still, there are plenty of potential concerns. In online videos, you can find people attaching different types of firearms to drones. Anyone concocting such a contraption would face plenty of practical obstacles, and no doubt legal ones as well. It’s likely that states would pass bans on such a practice, at the behest of hunters, faster than they banned remote-control hunting a few years ago — and they did that with the speed of a wildfire.
If you’re thinking this is something the U.S. military might be looking into, the scientists at U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are rumored to be doing just that. Reports say DARPA has a program called the “Autonomous Rotorcraft Sniper System.”
This program would turn snipers into real-life video game players. They’d remotely find and track targets with a drone, which would be equipped with a rifle mounted in a stabilized turret. It could supposedly fly above a battlefield and take out targets atop buildings or behind cover.
Reports say the military is also testing a “Close-In Covert Autonomous Disposable Aircraft,” or CICADA. These could be dropped in swarms over a battlefield to provide accurate and instant intelligence for air strikes and more.
Those are military applications, of course, but they do show how fast this technology is developing. Actually, it’s moving so fast that Amazon’s attempt to develop drones that can deliver packages in urban areas isn’t that far ahead of the times. This is why sportsmen need to understand the technology and the ethical implications.
OF ETHICS AND DRONES
Keith Balfourd, director of marketing for the Boone and Crockett Club, has been paying attention. “I’ve heard of guys using them to flush ducks into the air,” he noted. But outside of such hearsay, he has no reliable reports of hunters using them.
Nevertheless, B&C’s records department thought it was important to get ahead of this issue. They decided that no trophy taken with the help of a drone can be included in their record books. Though Balfourd says, as this was being written, that B&C has not had to deny or remove a single trophy from its records because of drone use, he believes it’s important to develop fair-chase protocols now.
To define what is fair chase, Balfourd says, “If there is one hard and fast rule, it is that something illegal can never be fair chase.”
Balfourd explained that fair chase will continue to be a standard for inclusion of any trophy in B&C’s records program. But, he adds, “it has never been the intention of the Club to limit the application of fair chase only to eligibility in its records book. Fair chase exists with or without records books, and it should be a consideration for every licensed hunter whenever and wherever they hunt.”
A sporting approach, he says, is the motivation behind fair chase. It recognizes the advantage of human capabilities, including technologies, and a desire to constrain ourselves. “Knowing what improper advantage means comes from experience, but if there is any doubt, the advantage should go to the animal. That is fair chase,” says Balfourd.
The consensus among hunter-conservation organizations is that if technology becomes a substitute for basic skills in the field, then technology is not only undermining the hunting experience, but also has the potential to erode public support for hunting.
That said, legality can never be a synonym for ethics. Laws create parameters and draw lines, but they can’t philosophically outline and anticipate every possible situation. This is why Balfourd stresses that the ethics of sportsmen’s use of drones and other technologies should be defined by our understanding of fair chase.
Many states have passed regulations or are considering bans on using drones while hunting. Some are also worried that drones might be used to harass law-abiding hunters. To prevent this scenario, a few states have passed laws prohibiting anyone from using a drone to harass hunters or anglers.
Other than state restrictions, anyone who buys a drone needs to read and understand the federal regulations. The FAA rules basically limit flights to daylight hours and visual-line-of-sight operations, and ban their use “over any persons.” The FAA regulations also require drones to be less than 55 pounds, and they cannot fly above 500 feet or faster than 100 mph. Users are required to register their drones (there is a $5 fee) at Federaldroneregistration.com. Failure to register could result in a $27,500 fine.
Some are complaining that, in a few instances, regulations aren’t sensible. The National Park Service, for example, quickly banned all drones. Alan Peterson, a documentary filmmaker who runs Flying Leap Films, Inc., says he wanted to use a drone while filming in the Glenn Canyon National Recreation Area. The National Park Service (NPS) told him they had banned drones on all park lands but would sell him a permit to hire a full-sized helicopter to shoot the material.
“The rationale for not allowing the drone was it might disturb other visitors and wildlife,” according to Peterson. “So they wouldn’t allow a three-foot-wide electric drone, but a full-size, jet-fueled, screaming JetRanger was not a problem.”
The regulation of evolving technologies can be difficult. The NPS banned drones because people were flying them around popular parks, which ruined the atmosphere for some visitors. To find a better compromise, Peterson thinks the NPS should allow people to obtain permits to use drones in specific, well-defined ways.
Still other factors are affecting how drones are being used. For example, Jason Miller says that in order to get insurance to fly larger drones, insurance companies require “pilot training classes.” This is because it takes a lot of experience to fly the larger drones safely. “I have over $17,000 invested in a particular drone that carries expensive camera equipment,” says Miller. “Before I fly it I develop a definite preflight checklist, flight plan, and shot list.”
The FAA already had to tweak its regulations to allow farmers to use drones commercially. Some farmers want to watch their fields and livestock without using gas to travel around, and drone makers are embracing this market. For example, Precision Drone builds drones equipped with infrared cameras that can help determine crop health. Crop stress or weeds can be spotted with infrared because the color of vegetation appears different in infrared. Potentially, this could also help hunters who manage food plots.
Unforeseen applications like this will no doubt continue to shape drone usage and regulations. Keeping up with the dizzying array of new models and capabilities will pose challenges for everyone. While some are worried about drones colliding with aircraft or invading their privacy, sportsmen are also considering the impacts on wildlife and ethical hunting. One thing is for certain: the sky above us is changing.