Hollywood's Drones

Drones today are less about Yemin and more about Hollywood.  The ariel shots are amazing, and unheard of prior to the release of new technologies.  Now that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) lost their court case against Raphael Pirker in January the federal government is on the road to sanctioning the use of drones in limited industries, such as film.  This is a good first step for a bunch of bureaucrats that are still using flip phones.

Before getting into today’s announcement, I think it is important to have a little background. In 2011, the FAA slapped Pirker with a $10,000 fine after he flew his Styrofoam drone around the University of Virginia while filming an ad for the university’s medical school. With that, the most famous pilot in the underground drone world became a test case for the FAA’s authority to prohibit people from making money off their hobby.  The FAA has never officially regulated model airplanes or small drones. The closest it has come was an “advisory” issued in 1981 that created a set of voluntary guidelines for model aircraft: stay within the line of sight, do not fly within three miles of an airport, do not fly a model airplane higher than 400 feet. Then, in 2007, the FAA said in a policy statement that the 1981 advisory applies only to hobbyists, not to businesses—a move the agency has repeatedly said makes the commercial operation of drones illegal (even for the film industry). Back in 2007, the FAA said it would soon release new rules for small commercial drones, but it still has not produced those rules and just this month announced that they wouldn’t be ready until at least November of 2014.

Earlier this week, The Wall Street Journal report that Federal regulators are considering exempting seven companies working for the film and television industry from current prohibitions against commercial uses of drone aircraft in U.S. skies.


Monday’s announcement by the Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t immediately end those restrictions. But it signals that the agency, after months of controversy and pressure from drone proponents to allow some limited commercial flights, is looking to end the legal logjam by authorizing some independent cinematography companies and individuals to use drones.

If the administrative exemptions are granted, such photo and video applications would have for the first time explicit FAA approval under specific conditions. The decision could open the door to other industry-by-industry exemptions—something drone manufacturers and users have been advocating for some time.

Some drone operators and others say they have been flying drones for various video and photo uses despite the FAA’s ban, and that the FAA’s stretched enforcement arm hasn’t tried to shut them down. Drones also have been used for a number of other applications, including agriculture, because agency officials generally haven’t initiated enforcement actions.

The exemptions presumably would go into effect before the FAA finishes its current effort to formulate comprehensive rules for such small drones, or unmanned aerial systems, operating at low altitudes and weighing less than 55 pounds.

As stated above, proposed rules for small drones are expected to be issued by the end of the year, though they aren’t likely to become final until 2015 or later.  At the same time, the FAA continues work on drafting rules to integrate larger drones into U.S. airspace. Those proposals, however, are bound to be more complex and won’t be issued until later.

In its announcement, the FAA cited the “tangible economic benefits as the agency begins to address the demand for commercial [drone] operations.” But the agency said all “associated safety issues must be carefully considered to make sure any hazards are appropriately mitigated” before the FAA gives the green light.

The FAA said the Motion Picture Association of America “facilitated the exemption requests on behalf of their membership.”

The firms want exemptions for operational rules, pilot-training requirements and maintenance mandates. They also want to be exempted from federal design requirements covering the unmanned vehicles.

Seven companies, which aren’t generally known outside the motion picture industry, filed identical requests prepared by the same law firm and lawyer. They envision using “small, unmanned and relatively inexpensive” drones “under controlled conditions” in limited airspace off-limits to others. The filings also indicate anticipated safeguards including use of a pilot and an observer; flights remaining under 200 feet altitude and lasting for less than 30 minutes; and onboard backup systems to ensure that drones can land safely if they lose communication or navigation signals.

The Motion Picture Association released a statement praising the FAA for considering approval of unmanned systems that offer “an innovative and safer option for filming” than manned aircraft.

In addition to companies engaged in film production, the FAA said three other industries are considering asking for exemptions. They include some agricultural uses; aerial inspections of power lines and pipelines; and inspections of certain stacks at oil and gas facilities.

Law-enforcement agencies and other public users of drones already can rely on procedures to obtain FAA approval to fly some of the largest models in designated airspace.

So while the FAA allows mainstream industries to be accepted, people like Pirker remain a Blacksheep.

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