Yellowstone drone ad draws fire

By Mike Koshmrl

Jackson Hole News&Guide

Via Wyoming News Exchange

JACKSON — A California-based drone manufacturer is being investigated for promoting its “true follow-me” technology with footage of a Rollerblader kicking it along a West Thumb Geyser Basin boardwalk.

Flying drones is illegal in Yellowstone and all other national parks, as is in-line skating on boardwalks. The drone company involved, named Skydio, geo-tagged the Wyoming video as shot in Iceland.

“Thermal tour a la rollerblade,” the company posted in a caption alongside the video, which was viewed over 10,000 times in its one week up on Instagram.

The video has since been removed.

Skydio representatives initially responded to the News&Guide’s request for an interview over email, but their willingness to talk withered when the story’s topic was disclosed.

Based in the Bay Area, Skydio pitches itself as a startup created by former Google engineers that got off the ground with $28 million in venture capital raised through the fall of 2017.

The “pre-eminent investors” the company lists on its website include Justin Timberlake and Magic Johnson.

Yellowstone National Park law enforcement rangers learned of the video’s existence last week and, as of Tuesday morning, had not made any determinations, park spokeswoman Morgan Warthin said.

“They are aware, and they will investigate it,” Warthin said. “What’s important to recognize is that there are so many incidents of drone use that we deal with. Visitors using drones in Yellowstone is a problem.”

During 2018 there were about 40 drone flights that Yellowstone rangers became aware of. A chunk of those resulted in citations, some of which resulted in mandatory court appearances for pilots, who paid over $1,000 to square up on fines, Warthin said.

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s two national parks have been home to a number of infamous illegal drone flights since the National Park Service banned the emerging technology from its 419 properties in 2014. The Park Service director at the time, Jon Jarvis, said the policy was necessary because drones were interfering with rescues, causing excessive noise, ruining views and disturbing wildlife.

Perhaps the most notorious illegal Yellowstone drone took flight five years ago. The aircraft never made it back to its owner, Dutch tourist Theodorus Van Vliet, who crashed his drone into Grand Prismatic Spring and was fined more than $3,000. His DJI Phantom quad-copter was never recovered, and its remnants stew today in Grand Prismatic’s depths. Scientists have worried that the sunken drone could clog one of Grand Prismatic’s vents or melt and forever alter the microbial mats that make the famously photographed spring so brilliant.

In Jackson Hole a drone in 2017 illegally buzzed world-famous grizzly bear No. 399, who eyewitnesses said wasn’t too bothered. But earlier that year some 1,500 elk gathered on the National Elk Refuge had the opposite response, stampeding a half-mile away from Highway 89 toward Miller Butte after a Washington, D.C., man’s drone spooked them.

Problems with drone use in Grand Teton National Park have persisted, too. All told there have been 45 drone flights since 2015 that resulted in a citation or warning from a Teton park ranger, spokeswoman Denise Germann said.

Though the West Thumb rollerblading scene Skydio shared on Instagram drew oohs and ahs from most followers who weighed in on the social media site, some weren’t too enamored.

When Instagram user @matdifference inquired on a comment thread where in Iceland the footage was shot, fellow Instagrammer @javier.g.roeth set the record straight.

“It’s not Iceland,” he wrote. “It’s Yellowstone National Park, and it’s illegal to fly drones in national parks. Shady and irresponsible marketing!”

Social media’s faithful mob mentality quickly took over, and other commenters piled on.

“Super dishonest,” Instagrammer user and avid drone photographer @justin_mcvideo posted.

“I was following this account, but no more. Shame.”