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Skydio Gets Wrong Kind of Press for Showcasing ‘Illegal’ Drone Video

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Despite having raised over $70 million and launching a unique and interesting drone, Skydio hasn’t been that well known. Until now. The company apparently showcased a “follow-me” video of a rollerblader on the boardwalk at West Thumb Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park. Drones are not actually illegal in every National Park; I’ve flown one in Red Rock Canyon National Park, where it is allowed except in the Wilderness Area and if you don’t disturb people or animals. But drones are most definitely illegal in Yellowstone. In fact, it was a drone crashing into the fragile Grand Prismatic Spring in 2015 that helped solidify the National Park Service’s position on drones in most parks.

A photo of the West Thumb Geyser Basin boardwalk in question that I took in 2010. You can see why the Park doesn’t allow rollerblading there either.

The video in question was tagged as being from Iceland, not Wyoming, and simply titled “Thermal tour a la rollerblade,” according to DPReview. Once readers noticed the discrepancy and brought it to Skydio’s attention, the video was taken down. Exclusive to ExtremeTech, we’ve spoken with company executives who say that they had no idea that the video was taken in a National Park, are sorry that it happened, and sorry that they posted the footage to their Instagram account. They have instituted changes in their policies so that it doesn’t happen again.

Here is CEO Adam Bry’s statement to ExtremeTech on what happened:

We’re sorry that one of our drones was flown in a national park and further that we posted the footage on our Instagram account. When we got the footage from the influencer using the drone, we didn’t realize it had been taken in Yellowstone. As soon as we found out, we took the post down. Skydio is made up of people who love the outdoors and we want to encourage people to use our products responsibly. We fell short on that in this instance, and have instituted changes in how we work with influencers and how we screen incoming footage to avoid situations like this in the future.

As far as the video itself, the park is investigating, but no conclusions have been reached yet. Fines of about $1,000 per pilot have been levied against many of the 40 drone operators reported to Yellowstone National Park rangers.

To be clear, as the Grand Prismatic incident demonstrates, the issue isn’t just about annoying buzzing from flying things ticking off visitors. Many natural habitats, including Grand Prismatic and many other Yellowstone highlights, are not areas you can simply walk or wade into in order to retrieve an errant drone. The simple act of trying to retrieve a drone could seriously damage the site, and leaving a bundle of plastic, metal, batteries, and electronics there can also cause trouble. Perhaps in earlier times, like 2014, before this was all made abundantly clear, ignorance might have been an excuse. Now, there is no excuse. Taking Skydio at their word, it appears that they didn’t actively participate in this travesty and were fooled into believing they’d received footage from Iceland, but someone clearly flew the drone in blatant disregard for the ecosystem of the park.

How Do the Parks Control Airspace?

The short answer is that they don’t. Parks can’t issue a blanket ban on UAVs flying anywhere over the park. They can ban launching, landing, or operating a drone from within the park, and also enforce their existing provisions against disturbing wildlife or other visitors. Since the Skydio drone has quite a short range and is designed to actively follow a person or vehicle, there really isn’t any way footage like that described could have been taken legally.

Shot from a Mavic Pro in Red Rock Canyon National Park looking towards Las Vegas.

Skydio Is Cool, but the R1 Is a One-Trick Pony

The Skydio R1 drone has by far the best active tracking and avoidance system of any consumer drone. The system includes an Nvidia TX1 at its core, along with a dozen tracking cameras. It’s possible to fly it in and around trees with confidence, something I have never felt comfortable doing with any of the Mavic drones — although the Mavic 2 is getting pretty good as long as you’re careful. However, it doesn’t have much range or battery life, doesn’t support a physical controller, and doesn’t have third-party application support. So for $1,499 (the new, reduced price) you’re spending a lot to make follow-me videos. Our colleague Jim Fisher at PCMag gave it a Fair rating in his full review.

Top image credit: [David Cardinal]

Now Read:

  • Drone Safety After Gatwick: More Regulations May Not Work
  • FAA Considers Loosening Drone Regulations
  • DJI Mavic 2 Pro Field-Tested: A Winning Upgrade

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