My Picnic Was Interrupted by Drones


by Kathleen Richards

On a recent, beautifully glorious Sunday in Seattle, my boyfriend and I decided to enjoy the day by having a picnic at Magnuson Park. We weren’t the only ones who had that idea. Soon, we were joined by families with kites, couples with dogs, Frisbee-throwers, and guitar-players. Then, as we lay on the grass, looking out at the water, our serene scene was suddenly punctuated by what sounded like a loud, motorized mosquito. Soon enough, a black object zipped through the air around our heads. And then another one. And then another. WWWWHHHHHHRRRrrrrrrrrrr.

They were drones.

We couldn’t see who or what was operating these tiny plastic vehicles. But round and round they went, in a huge circle. This buzzing continued long enough to encourage us to seek refuge on another lawn. We packed up our things and headed up the hill, where we came upon the drone operators—three dudes, one who wasn’t even facing the direction his drone was flying and seemingly wasn’t watching it as it buzzed over the park. As we got closer to them, we noticed that the guy not facing his drone was actually wearing a virtual-reality headset.

The Verge calls these virtual-reality drones a “delicious combination” and “wild and unique.” And I’m sure they are for the user. But for those nearby, they are annoying as fuck.

And we couldn’t escape them, even after relocating to the next lawn over. Nor could a couple trying to have a conversation about relationships. Their small dogs were freaked out, too. Hours later, we thought we had freed ourselves from this high-tech annoyance, only to encounter another group of dudes (and gals) with… another drone.

The drone bros in this group played a fun trick in which they shot the drone straight up in the air, let go of the controls, and then reengaged the drone right before it seemed like it would crash into the ground, sometimes right above our heads.

Is this the future of Seattle’s parks?

Now, I get that parks are public space and should be enjoyed by everyone. And some of those people want to fly kites or throw Frisbees or talk on their phones. I have no interest in restricting the rights of people to enjoy parks as they like; however, drones pose a new problem—the complete obliteration of personal space. They can fly right over you, and supposedly you shouldn’t be worried because (you hope) their operators are in complete control of them. But what happens if an operator loses control or a drone malfunctions? There is also the issue of noise pollution, as these suckers aren’t quiet. Part of my enjoyment of going to a park is being able to get away (even a little bit) from the artificial noise of a city. Not anymore.

There’s also privacy to consider. We couldn’t tell whether these drones were equipped with cameras or not, but it certainly made the experience of enjoying a picnic with a loved one more tense. If there was video, what were they seeing? What were they recording? Where would the video end up?

It turns out that—perhaps unbeknownst to the drone bros at Magnuson—operating drones in public parks is illegal in Seattle. Municipal Code 18.12.265 states: “It is unlawful to operate any motorized model aircraft or motorized model watercraft in any park except at places set apart by the Superintendent for such purposes or as authorized by a permit from the Superintendent.” (It’s also illegal to operate drones in King County parks, except in designated areas where model aircraft are allowed, according to King County Parks spokesperson Doug Williams.)

However, enforcing this no-drone rule is somewhat difficult, according to David Takami, communications manager for Seattle Parks and Recreation. “We’re not an enforcement agency,” he said. “We can call the police, but realistically they’re not gonna come out to a park to enforce that rule. I know that our parks staff, when they are around, have approached people and reminded them and told them about the rule. I guess we could put up signs where it’s prevalent.”

Seattle Police Department spokesperson Drew Fowler said police respond to all calls for service; however, he suggested that drones in parks are a low priority. “In the face of someone’s car being broken into, resources will be dedicated thusly,” Fowler said. He added that SPD would only get involved in the enforcement of drone usage if someone were using a drone to commit a crime.

The Seattle Parks Department isn’t the only level of government with rules about drones. The FAA also provides guidelines for model-aircraft operations (which includes consumer-grade drones). Among them:

• Fly below 400 feet and remain clear of surrounding obstacles

• Keep the aircraft within visual line of sight at all times

• Remain well clear of and do not interfere with manned aircraft operations

• Don’t fly within five miles of an airport unless you contact the airport and control tower before flying

• Don’t fly near people or stadiums

• Don’t fly an aircraft that weighs more than 55 pounds

• Don’t be careless or reckless with your unmanned aircraft—you could be fined for endangering people or other aircraft.

But operators of these consumer-grade drones do not need permission to fly them, nor are there any restrictions on taking photos with them (as long as they are for “personal use”).

A drone that was breaking FAA guidelines would have to be punished by the FAA, not the SPD. But it’s unclear how to make a complaint if you see someone breaking FAA guidelines—like, say, flying a drone near people picnicking in Magnuson Park.

Other than the FAA guidelines and the rule regarding Seattle parks, it is perfectly legal to operate a drone within city limits. “The criminal section of Seattle Municipal Code doesn’t speak to drones, so we do not charge criminally for operating a drone in the city,” wrote Kimberly Mills, spokesperson for the city attorney’s office, in an e-mail. She added that her office has yet to prosecute a single case in which a person used a drone for criminal purposes.

“We can’t, and don’t, charge anyone operating a drone unless they’re committing a crime in the process or, as you mentioned, [operating one in] the city parks and near airports,” wrote Mills. “For example, it’s conceivable that someone flying a drone right next to a fourth-floor apartment window in the city could get charged with voyeurism if Seattle police would arrest on that basis. I said conceivable, as that case hasn’t been presented for filing to us.”

Except that such a case has already taken place. Fowler said there have been only two incidences in city history (that he’s aware of) in which drone usage rose to the level of SPD involvement. Both happened last year: In one incident, someone flew a drone close to the Space Needle (it was initially reported that the drone crashed into the city landmark). In another, a woman called the police after spotting a drone outside her apartment window (it turns out the drone was trying to capture the view of an apartment for rent). But both cases did not involve criminal wrongdoing. “Most people are hobbyists and just having fun,” said Fowler.

But what happens if or when people start using drones for less innocuous purposes?

“This is an area where technology has outpaced the law,” Mills wrote.

Takami agreed. “It’s a growing issue,” he said. “I haven’t heard of any formal plans, but we’ve been mentioning it more and more because especially drones have become more of an issue versus the old model airplanes. So I know it’s been discussed, but I don’t know if there’s any formal plan to address them.”

One thing is certain: Drones will become more and more prevalent in everyday life, whether you like it or not. The FAA just approved hundreds of businesses—including Amazon—to use drones for commercial purposes, opening the door for drones to one day deliver our food and other goods. And in February, the FAA released a set of proposed new rules for drone operation. Currently, Washington State has no laws that regulate how the government can use drones (although a bill that would regulate government usage recently cleared the state senate).

Enjoy silence while you can.