Drones banned over Old Sacramento? Not necessarily

A Sacramento man’s drone flight over Old Sacramento was cut short Sunday after a ranger informed him it was illegal to fly one over state parks.

In advance of the trip, the pilot, Scott Yates, said he diligently researched where it was legal to fly by checking the Federal Aviation Administration’s website.

“I’m doing everything I can to stay on the right side of the law,” Yates said in a video he posted on YouTube about the incident.

After visiting the California State Railroad Museum with his family, Yates said he got out his DJI Phantom drone and flew for seven minutes. In the video, the drone is seen approaching I-5, the cars buzzing below. The drone turns and flies towards the Sacramento River, before landing in a patch of grass. A ranger approached him and politely told him it was illegal, Yates said.

“When he said drone flights are not allowed within California state parks, I packed up my gear and we went home,” he explains in the video.

When he got home, he decided to do some more research and couldn’t find any evidence of the blanket ban cited by the ranger.

Monday, parks officials agreed – sort of.

“California State Parks does not currently have regulations or policies specific to drone operation,” said Dennis Weber, a spokesman for the parks system.

District superintendents, however, can supplement state rules with “special orders banning drones in specific parks to protect visitors, wildlife or resources.”

“However, there is no posted order on drones at Old Sacramento State Historic Park at this time,” Weber said.

Gloria Sandoval, the deputy director of public affairs for state parks, said rangers can act to protect public safety by asking a drone operator to cease operations.

“That ranger deemed it was a public safety hazard,” Sandoval said. It’s unclear what about the operation triggered the concerns.

The dust-up over where drones can be flown legally comes as the number of unmanned flying craft has exploded, to a large degree due to the ease of flying quadcopters. In December, the FAA adopted rules requiring all owners of small unmanned aircraft or drones weighing between 0.55 and 55 pounds to register online.

Drone expert Patrick Egan said his office is in Old Sacramento and he see drones flying there all the time. But that doesn’t mean it’s safe, especially for a newer pilot. Yates said it was his second flight.

“If they are here on some morning when nobody is around, that’s one thing. … Flying around people, cars – that’s dangerous,” Egan said. “The laws of physics always win.”

He said too many inexperienced pilots put themselves in precarious situations but that more should be done to clarify where one can legally fly a drone.

“It’s such a mishmash,” he said. “It’s really hard for people to know where they can’t fly.”

Ed Fletcher: 916-321-1269, @NewsFletch