NAB Preview: Drones Take Center Stage at Las Vegas Confab

At the National Association of Broadcasters' annual meetup, net neutrality, virtual reality and even a visit from 'The Walking Dead' are all on the schedule, but it's the future of unmanned aerial vehicles that should have everybody talking.
Carolyn Giardina

This story first appeared in the April 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Welcome to the year of the drone. Suddenly, they seem to be everywhere. Drones — also known as unmanned aerial systems (UAS) or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) — are popping up in newscasts, hovering over football games and invading film sets.

They provoke both fascination and fear: Witness the currently popular Audi commercial, dubbed "The Drones" and inspired by Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, in which terri­fied civilians run from them. Matthew Libatique, the Oscar-nominated cinematographer of Black Swan, shot the piece, in which drones were used both behind and in front of the camera. "Drones have worked their way into our lives," says Lee Einhorn, associate partner and creative director at Venables Bell & Partners, the agency that created the spot. "It's a metaphor for technology today and where it's going."

And so, for the first time, this year's National Association of Broadcasters Show, which runs from April 11 to 16 in Las Vegas, will include a drone exhibition pavilion, as well as sessions that will address regulatory hurdles and production training.

While some recreational use of drones is permitted, commercial drones currently are prohibited in U.S. airspace, although the Federal Aviation Administration is looking at loosening restrictions. Last fall, the FAA took a big step forward, granting regulatory exceptions that allowed several aerial production companies, sup­ported by the MPAA, to use drones for filmmaking, provided they follow agreed-upon guidelines. UAVs quickly were enlisted for episodes of ABC's Modern Family and CBS' The Mentalist.

In February, the FAA then proposed a set of regulations that would allow the use of certain drones without requiring any exemption or waiver. They apply to UAVs that weigh less than 55 pounds and are used for non-recreational purposes.

Meanwhile, the FAA has introduced an interim policy to grant a waiver for flights that meet certain criteria such as operating only within the line of sight of the pilot. "This policy is a step in the right direction. However, there are still almost 600 pending requests for exemptions, and the FAA has approved only 53 to date," says Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. The FAA, he adds, "needs to expedite this process. It might be 18 to 20 months before there's a finalized rule."

Meanwhile, on the technical side, manufacturers are rushing in. Production gear provider Vitec Group recently acquired Paralinx, which creates wireless systems to operate cameras that are flying on drones. And camera maker ARRI is creating the Alexa Mini, a 5-pound version of its widely used Alexa digital cinema camera, which president and CEO Glenn Kennel says was created with drones in mind (they can stay in the air for longer periods of time when carrying lighter loads). With 22 companies scheduled to exhibit their wares at the NAB's special pavilion, drones have arrived.

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