Could the hum of a 13-inch-square quadcopter hovering over the ocean really bother a 60-foot-long, 200,000 pound whale swimming in the waters below? The National Oceanic Atmospheric Association thinks so, and it's starting to crack down on hobby drone pilots who come too close.
Earlier this year, an NOAA Office of Law Enforcement branch in Port Orange, Florida contacted a drone pilot about a video he or she had posted on YouTube in February. In the video, the drone flies above two North Atlantic right whales—an endangered species—as they swim along the surface of the ocean.
"North Atlantic right whales are protected under the Endangered Species Act and the regulations governing Endangered Marine and Anadromous Species," the letter reads. "Approaching within 500 yards of a right whale by vessel, aircraft, or any other means is a violation."
The video has since been taken down and the anonymous drone pilot posted the first page of the letter on a closed Facebook group with other pilots, where it caught the eye of Brendan Schulman, an attorney and drone law expert. Schulman shared the image with Motherboard, and though he couldn't track down who had originally posted it, NOAA confirmed that they did issue the letter, in which they asked the pilot to remove the YouTube video.
"We try to take an education and outreach approach and ask for people's cooperation before we move forward with any enforcement action," NOAA Office of Law Enforcement Special Agent John Reghi told me over the phone, adding NOAA didn't take any further action other than asking for the video to be taken down. "The video itself could actually give the impression that it's okay to engage in that type of behavior."
Reghi said the growing popularity of hobby drones means NOAA's law enforcement agents have to do a lot of work after-the-fact, often based on reports about videos posted online. Right now their focus is on trying to just raise awareness. Reghi said a lot of people don't know the rules around approaching certain protected species, but that ignorance could put the animals in danger.
"If you cause the animal stress, cause a change in its behavior, or cause the animal to try to interact with the drone, you run the risk of breaking the law," Reghi explained. "Say there was a collision between a hobby drone and a seal resting on the beach. We would consider that a take [any kind of harm done to an endangered animal]."
But the laws NOAA is enforcing were created not with hobby drones but manned aircraft in mind, which had Schulman questioning whether or not drones ought to be subject to them at all. In fact, he suggested using drones for careful, controlled animal watching could actually help conservation efforts.
"No one I know wants to bother or hurt a whale, especially an endangered one," Schulman said. "If you ask me, we now have the ability to take amazing videos of these species and enhance public awareness of them in a way that doesn't endanger them and that's something we should consider to be a benefit of the technology."
Reghi said the NOAA law enforcement office is sensitive to that and pointed out that NOAA even uses drones as a tool in its research efforts. But he said those drones are operated under strict monitoring by researchers with an understanding of how a drone might affect these species. A novice pilot likely doesn't have that knowledge and could wind up accidentally doing harm, Reghi said. For now, NOAA would prefer pilots just steer clear.
"Hobby drones are neat, and gosh, it gives you a treetop perspective of things," Reghi said. "But we need to give animals their space."