FAA Approves Exemption Allowing Drones to Fly on Movie Sets

Expendables Drone Watermarked - H 2014
Phil Bray Courtesy of Millenium Films

Expendables Drone Watermarked - H 2014

Following months of speculation, the Federal Aviation Administration has approved operator exemptions for six aerial production companies to use small, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or drones, for filming motion pictures and television programming in U.S. airspace.

Calling the decision a “great victory,” MPAA chairman and CEO Chris Dodd said during Thursday’s press conference that it would help Hollywood produce “creative product … and help bolster an industry critical to our country.” He pointed out that it levels the playing field with other countries that already allow the use of drones in production, and “encourages cutting-edge technology to make movies more imaginative.” He added that consumers will therefore also benefit.

A growing camp in Hollywood has asserted that mounting cameras on drones offers new creative options, cost savings and, perhaps, safer sets. But regulatory issues had been a hurdle; in order to conduct a commercial operation with an unmanned aircraft in U.S. airspace, users had needed a certified aircraft, licensed pilot and FAA approval.

Speaking on Thursday, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and FAA administrator Michael Huerta noted that they approved these exemptions after finding they didn’t pose a threat to national airspace users or national security. Dodd thanked them for the “remarkable effort.”

The effort drew a lot of attention last spring when, with assistance by the MPAA, seven Hollywood production companies requested regulatory exemption to allow them to use UAS for filming. Those companies that received the exemption are Aerial MOB, Astraeus Aerial, HeliVideo Productions, Pictorvision, Vortex Aerial and Snaproll Media. The seventh company, Flying-Cam, has been asked for additional information and is still under review.

“The FAA has done a great job working with us and the MPAA on this lengthy process, and we are very excited that our months of hard work and commitment (both time and financially) is going to pay off,” said Tony Carmean, founder and partner of Aerial MOB. “Over the last year or so, our group, along with the input of the MPAA, has established the safety and operational procedures that are going to be the foundation for not only how UAS are used on film production sets but also how they will be used in other industries that are establishing the framework of how to safely integrate UAS into the national airspace.”

In their applications, the firms said the operators will hold private pilot certificates, keep the UAS within line of sight and under 400 feet and restrict flights to closed sets. In granting the exemption, the FAA accepted these safety conditions, adding an inspection of the aircraft before each flight, and, at least for now, prohibiting operations at night. The agency also will issue Certificates of Waiver or Authorization that mandate flight rules and timely reports of any accident or incidents.

“We are ecstatic that finally we can legally fly UAS for filmmaking,” said Tom Hallman, president of Pictorvision. “It puts us back on an even keel with other countries that have been doing this for a number of years now."

Hallman added that it won’t replace manned photogtaphy, where “500 feet is about as low as you can go,” but the ruling that drones can fly up to 400 feet would "open up a variety of shots that we weren’t able to achieve before. That's a whole lot of space and opens up a lot of creative options — and more cost effectively.”

He added that previously, some in the community have contended that the existing rules had gray areas. “Now it’s black and white,” Hallman said. “The studios have been strict about not using UAS for MPAA productions. … But there are many others who skirt the issue and are flying them today, and that has put us at a disadvantage by not breaking what we feel were clear rules.”

Additional companies made similar requests, and participants at the press conference noted that Thursday’s announcement created a model that could lead to more companies receiving exemptions.

Drones recently have been tapped for productions including Expendables 3, which was shot in Bulgaria, and Game of Thrones, which was filmed in the U.K.

“We were able to shoot all drone footage for Expendables 3, because it was filmed in Bulgaria," said Ziv Marom, owner of the drone camera-services company ZM Interactive. Now, with this new FAA ruling, we look forward to filming here in the States, as well. This is a great step.”

Sept. 24, 5 p.m. Updated with additional comment from Ziv Marom.

Email: Carolyn.Giardina@THR.com
Twitter: @CGinLA