September 29, 2014

FAA Has Decided to Allow 6 Studios to Use Drones. What Does This Mean for Indie Film?

Helicam
Credit: Helicam
The legality of how camera drones are used in film production in the US recently has been, at best, questionable.

Despite the bevy of tempting quadcopter/octocopter options that have become readily accessible in recent years, according to the Federal Aviation Administration you are technically not supposed to use Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) for commercial film productions (with very few exceptions, such as the extreme wilderness in Alaska). Many productions have to opt to film in other countries due to the US regulations that prevent them from legally filming with the use of a UAS. That doesn't mean filmmakers don't still do it, effectively "stealing the shot." In fact, the FAA has even had to go so far as to release a "myth busting" sheet to curb misconceptions. Well, it should make drone enthusiasts rejoice, then, that the FAA is now beginning to allow certain studios exceptions to the FAA's rules concerning UASs, allowing them to operate without an FAA air-worthiness certificate (provided they can prove their productions are safe, don't fly at night, and are on a closed set). Check out this video from CBS for a recap:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KpOveJ3JI-g

From the press release from the FAA, here are the six companies:

The Motion Picture Association of America facilitated the exemption requests on behalf of these six members: Astraeus Aerial, Aerial MOB, LLC, HeliVideo Productions, LLC, Pictorvision Inc., RC Pro Productions Consulting, LLC, dba Vortex Aerial, and Snaproll Media, LLC. The FAA has asked for additional information from Flying-Cam, Inc., a seventh aerial video company that filed for exemptions with this group in June. The agency is working closely with the company to obtain the required information.

We've known since May that the regulations concerning UAVs/UAS's/drones would be under review soon. This clearly has big implications for the film production industry, and especially independent filmmaking in general. Aerial photography has seen a boom in recent years due to the increase in use of drones. Drones open up so many unique shots and options for creativity (even using the Oculus Rift for a true flying experience). They're priced in such a way that the barrier to entry is actually pretty low — a little over a grand for the DJI Phantom, for example, and you're in the aerial game. And if you're not producing commercially, you're in the clear as long as you're not operating over populated areas, or in areas denoted by this handy No Fly Zone map. (There does seem to be some grey area though concerning what makes a production "commercial" in the eyes of the FAA.)

Andrew Wonder Sony F55 Drone

One note on safety: some news outlets have suggested that a UAV could be "safer than using a helicopter" for the same kind of aerial shots. This strikes me as sort of nonsensical, and I have to disagree with it — yes, there will be different safety concerns, but not less. They sort of run with the suggestion that drones will be replacing "helicopter shots." But we all know that these affordable (and soon ubiquitous) drones will also be used in place of jib moves, dolly/steadicam moves, and certainly many combinations in between, not just bigger-budgeted aerial photography. I think safety will be a HUGE concern, and we will see more and more instances pop up like the situation in New York where a pedestrian almost was hit by one. I've even heard of crews hitting the control of a quadcopter and cutting themselves on the blades. (As Joe wisely noted in his title, these are not toys.) And drones being "safer" than a manned aircraft slowly maneuvering for shots doesn't ring true to me, either. I'm all for drones becoming mainstream, but "more accessible" does not mean "safer," and like with any technology, I think a big part of the drone discussion will revolve around safety in the future.

I think the big question here is will this easing up on the FAA's part usher in the new era of accepted, accessible, commercially viable UAS cinematography? They're certainly easing up in this move, and as Wired points out, there are several other companies outside of film production that want to use drones. It also doesn't hurt that the MPAA is putting its lobbying power behind it.

What do you think? Are we entering the new age of drone cinematography, or should we expect more roadblocks (especially given safety concerns)?     

Your Comment

29 Comments

The fact that there are many times when it's perfectly legal to fly a standard RC aircraft but illegal to do so if you mount a camera on it for "commercial" purposes just goes to show how idiotic the government generally is. There's no way in hell someone could reasonably make the argument that it's safer to zip around the local park with an RC plane than it is to fly overhead with a multicoptor shooting aerial footage. ESPECIALLY if we're talking about something very lightweight and predominantly plastic like a DJI Phantom.

I've never worked with any aerial equipment, but I hope to in the not-too distant future. Any filming I'd do with multicoptors would be in very rural locations, though, so I could really care less what the regulations are.

September 29, 2014 at 5:13PM

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David West
Filmmaker
969

I just hope this doesn't turn into the aerial version of "internet fast lanes," where only large budget productions will be able to fly these legally.

September 29, 2014 at 8:56PM

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I am filming with drones commercially for more than 4 years now and we had only one incident when our Phantom 2 crashed into the Danube river in Novi Sad.

I think that drones are really safe now, but that the low price is making them available to many users who don't have any flying experiences and than they make mistakes and crash.

Also I agree with the previous comment that it's idiotic to make RC flying without camera legal, and attaching the camera on RC illegal.

September 29, 2014 at 6:07PM, Edited September 29, 6:07PM

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Bojan Andrejek
DP / Cinematographer / Producer
229

"without an FAA air-worthiness certificate" Not to sure what was meant to be said here, but from what I learned FAA says that you need to have a private pilots license in order to fly commercially.

I dont understand how the FAA can say that you can fly your aircraft with a camera on board in certain areas for your own personal use, but the moment you charge some one for that footage you can get into trouble. I believe that the FAA just wants a slice of that pie... don't you think? MONEY!!!

September 29, 2014 at 6:22PM

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Bert Beltran
Filmmaker | Editor | Motion Graphics | Drone Op
183

You need at least a commercial pilot's license to operate an airplane or helicopter for money.

September 30, 2014 at 12:28PM

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So the FAA steps in when you attach a camera to your rc helicopter???? But take that camera off and its legal rc copter? Oh the government. You make life easier.

September 29, 2014 at 7:38PM, Edited September 29, 7:38PM

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Dantly Wyatt
Musical Comedy & Content Creator.
778

No, not even that. You can have a camera attached to it and have it be "legal" if its for your own personal use. But the moment you sell that footage for money or charge someone to film something then that when it becomes "illegal". Its the fact of money, not safety, not privacy... MONEY!!

September 29, 2014 at 7:49PM

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Bert Beltran
Filmmaker | Editor | Motion Graphics | Drone Op
183

Seems like they could design the rotors with cages around the blades and people would be a lot more comfortable with them...

Side note: I accidentally submerged a DJI Phantom in 3 feet of oil covered water. Note to users, flying over twisted re-bar jacks up the compass/gps guidance system. It will slowly lower itself to a landing. Or submergance. Whichever is underneath. Thank goodness we put the GoPro in it's housing, we weren't going to then changed our minds. No usable footage though...

September 29, 2014 at 8:15PM

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Kent Broadbent
VFX, Editor, DP
124

There would be an enormous aerodynamic penalty for cages around the blades. Same reason they don't put cages around boat propellers.

September 30, 2014 at 12:31PM

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As someone who has seen this issue from both sides (government and industry) I take a slightly different view on what's just happened. I think the FAA announcement and new regulations provide some positive signs as well as concerns:

Pros: Congress and the FAA actually listened and implemented a change. You may not agree with how they did it but you can't say they didn't listen. The government hates ambiguity (see mythbusting site) but without guidance from Congress they often won't act. Congress heard from stakeholders and made changes to the law in 2012. Now the FAA has responded to the law by granting these exemptions to certain parts of the regulations. The FAA has admitted that this is a first step and more changes are coming.

Con: It's still going to be very difficult if not impossible for your introductory run-and-gun shooter or real-estate/wedding videographer to operate either legally or profitably. What will likely happen is higher rates for solo-act operators (drones become the new pro-steadicamer) who are "specialized", licensed, etc.

Also it should be painfully clear that to get permission you need to be a dues-paying member of the MPAA at some level so that former Senator Dodd can get you a seat at the table with the government.

September 29, 2014 at 9:38PM

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Brian T. Smith
Producer/ Manager/ Former Lobbyist
81

"One note on safety: some news outlets have suggested that a UAV could be "safer than using a helicopter" for the same kind of aerial shots. This strikes me as sort of nonsensical, and I have to disagree with it"

Sorry you disagree but you are absolutely and completely wrong. Nobody said UAVs are risk or danger free. But they are exponentially less dangerous than using helicopters.

Why?

Because they are called UNMANNED Aerial Vehicles. Every time a drone crashes, you get a messed up aircraft and camera. Every time a helicopter crashes, two or three people die. Yes, there is a risk of serious injury when a UAV goes down. But the likelihood of someone getting critically hurt by a UAV is probably lower than the chance of actually surviving a helicopter crash.

Garret Brown, the inventor of the Steadicam, thinks that using helicopters for cinematography should be completely replaced by UAVs due to the fact that he has lost over a dozen personal friends to multiple helicopter crashes on film sets over the years.

It's a no-brainer.

September 29, 2014 at 10:16PM

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You raise a fair point about loss of life regarding manned vs unmanned, and while I'm unsure about your tone, I appreciate your challenge. (Though I think that also depends on the size of the drone we're talking about.) I'm glad you care enough to talk about it. I still find the point nonsensical because it seems like a false equivalence. Comparing the use of a highly-regulated/much-higher-entry-cost/high-attention/usually-large-crew-requiring vehicle that we as an industry have decades of experience with (helicopters), to a presently very un-regulate-able aerial machine that many more people will have access to, capable of flying several pounds of weight on the whim of anyone willing to lay down some cash, seems silly. We have a history with helicopter shots and safety. We're just starting to see the official adoption of drone use - while not a loss of life, I've personally heard several horror stories about people getting hurt with drones... just like I've heard stories of improperly set c-stands falling on sets, lights falling, people tripping on gaff tape... the list goes on. Be sure that, just like any piece of film equipment, accidents will happen, and like anything, the frequency of use will have an impact on the numbers. I'd be interested in reading the quote from Garrett Brown, if you wouldn't mind sharing?

September 30, 2014 at 10:07AM

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Benjamin Dewhurst
Writer
writer/director

I'm sorry if you were unsure about my tone as it was not my intent to seem snarky in any way. So with all due respect, I still think you are wrong and kind of missing the point.

There is not a false equivalence. There is a direct equivalence. We are talking about replacing the use of helicopters with UAVs, therefore, comparing the relative safety risks involved is the entire point. As I said in my previous post, of course there is the risk of injury when you have an object with spinning blades flying overhead. Of course there are lots of people who have been seriously injured after being hit by the props.

But so far that is it. Injury. Sometimes it happens, the overwhelming majority of UAV crashes involve nothing more than loss of vehicle and camera. It is possible someone may be killed some day. But that's what I'm talking about. Maybe. Possible.

With helicopters, when someone gets hit by a blade they don't get injured. They are killed. The Twilight Zone motion picture comes to mind.

With helicopters, when one crashes, we have loss of aircraft, loss of camera, and loss of lives. People die. There is only the slightest chance at all of someone surviving, and if so, they are most likely horribly injured. A few years ago two news helicopters collided in mid air over Phoenix while covering some law enforcement action on the ground, with total loss of life in both aircraft. If they had been UAVs, nobody would have died (assuming nobody on the ground was hit by debris, which was of course much more likely in the case of the helicopters; nobody was).

I would rather have a hundred people injured byUAV crashes than one person killed in a helicopter crash.

And besides, we are talking about professional use here. I'm not talking about any Tom, Dick, or Harry with a credit card and a GoPro. They never had helicopters so they are hardly "replacing" them. When we are talking about the use of UAVs by professionals for Hollywood films, or for "eye in the sky" news reports, we are removing a large, manned aircraft, full of highly combustible fuel by the way, with much smaller battery powered aircraft.

We are literally talking about saving lives. I honestly don't know what could possibly seem nonsensical about that.

As for the Garrett Brown statement, I can't share anything with you because I didn't read it somewhere. I heard it out of his own mouth in person.

October 1, 2014 at 1:22AM

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I too have heard Garrett Brown say this in person.

It's also on pages 319-320 in The Steadicam Operator's Handbook (by Jerry Holway & Laurie Hayball).

I can't find it now, but a fairly recent American Cinematographer's From The President's Desk (probably from Steven Lighthill, but maybe from Goi or Crudo) that was talking about the number of people who had died that month around the globe in helicopter related filming deaths. It was pretty astounding how frequent operators die from filming from helicopters.

October 7, 2014 at 3:29PM

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Daniel Mimura
DP, cam op, steadicam op
2248

If this ever comes to a vote, I will vote that anyone operating a drone within 100 feet of another human being must have an FAA-issued operator's license. And, I hope that license is super expensive.

September 29, 2014 at 11:44PM

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Richard Krall
richardkrall.com
1559

As a member of Snap Roll Media...of course I am excited. To clarify what lots of people are commenting on...using your DJI Phantom 2 to get an aerial shot at a wedding is much different than shooting on a $150,000 rig flying a RED EPIC or Phantom 4k. In order for hollywood to hire us... everything MUST be done legally. Up until this point, hollywood wasn't able to legally hire out aerial cinematography from unmanned platforms. Now its legal for us and the five other companies listed...and so the floodgates are open. Exciting start to seeing this progress into more and more...(i.e. more comon household use and "delivery" methods)

September 30, 2014 at 12:16AM

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Dave Altizer
Director/ Editor
149

Do you think the FAA will open the skies to photo/video journalist anytime soon? Or to others that want to fly commercially?

September 30, 2014 at 2:23AM

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Bert Beltran
Filmmaker | Editor | Motion Graphics | Drone Op
183

Thank you for chiming in here, Dave!

September 30, 2014 at 9:32AM

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Benjamin Dewhurst
Writer
writer/director

This is interesting, and congrats. However, why is SnapRoll so special. I do not mean that in a negative way towards SRM. But, as a production company in Dallas who has the ability to fly UAV with cameras, and a pilot with a commercial pilots license, seems like the FAA is giving preferential treatment to just a few. And I'm still waiting on someone to explain to me the exact skill set of having a pilots license has on flying a UAV. Seriously, are we gone to put our UAV in a pattern to land at a local airfield. Other than the fact that I take flying seriously and safety is always a concern, I get that. I just curious what the rational is at the FAA to impose that mandate. I think it always comes down to money, not safety. I can fly my UAV with camera on it without money it's legit, but if I charge for it, that now is unsafe. FAA is not helping the safety issue, because so many are flying under the radar.

September 30, 2014 at 2:19PM

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John Harris
Director of Photography
74

"I think it always comes down to money, not safety." I agree with you on that.

October 1, 2014 at 12:05PM

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Bert Beltran
Filmmaker | Editor | Motion Graphics | Drone Op
183

It funny that people are still using the 2 year old crash in NYC that "almost" hit someone and "could have" caused damage. Y'all need to wait for something serious to happen. Who has more pull with the MPPA lobbying the FAA. A bunch of low budget guys (like me) flying go pros or the guys who have millions wrapped up in helicopter companies flying REDs or Arris?

September 30, 2014 at 1:58AM, Edited September 30, 1:58AM

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MikeD
96

Great news... :D

September 30, 2014 at 2:33AM

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Ragüel Cremades
Film producer and director
7667

It's great that the FAA has allowed these companies to legally work in the industry, however what I find amusing is that the only difference in restrictions between these commercial uses and model RC flight is 1) a safety plan and 2) closed sets. All of the other guidelines are already in place for hobby pilots.

Here's a great way the FAA could open airspace to allow commercial UAS use: yearly professional licensing. By mandating commercial UAS pilots take an online course (probably something like 8-15 hours) with a test, and log X number of hours on a simulator, and a licensing fee ($500-$1000?) you can educate and standardize minimum SOPs for commercial UAS flight. The fee will cover the cost of the online licensing system and administration as well as personnel to investigate misuse.

On top of all of that the FAA should require that applicants submit a general safety plan and keep detailed log-books of all flights. These log books can be subject to audit at any time. Now we have Training, Safety precautions in place, and Accountability. Plus a minor barrier to entry to deter those who aren't actually serious about proper commercial UAS flight.

The FAA has been mandated by congress to come up with a plan for allowing Commercial UAS flight by September 15 of next year (implementation will take longer). Other countries have this figured out already - it's about time the US gets on board with it.

September 30, 2014 at 10:09AM

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Michael Carney
Director of Photography, Commercial Video, Stills
295

Very thought out response, Michael. I think you should sent this along to the FAA or some other "power that be" - I can only imagine they get a ton of complaints, but someone proposing additional solutions may be welcome. Emphasis on "may" since our government is well... our government : ).

September 30, 2014 at 12:08PM

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Benjamin Dewhurst
Writer
writer/director

Photo credits would be nice...
-Ville / Helicam

September 30, 2014 at 3:31PM

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Sorry about that, Ville. It doesn't look like our hero image carried over the attribution. Fixed it, though. Thanks!

October 1, 2014 at 8:27PM

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V Renée
Nights & Weekends Editor
Writer/Director

The issue at hand is the FAA's definition of "ilegal". We have been waiting and watching for a resolution since 2008 when we first started modifying RC helis for AP jobs. We eventually gave up on the idea, and decided to offer RTF turnkey AP units.

Here's my opinion, and I'm not a lawyer, but in my understanding in order for them to make this activity illegal they have to follow proper steps, congress and the required laws need to be passed in order for aerial gigs to be considered "ilegal".

What the FAA has in place though is a policy of no fly under any circumstance as long as it's for commercial work. Can the FAA still get you in trouble if you do AP "illegal"? Yes, they can, and they can send cease and desist letters or follow other legal means to stop you from doing commercial work.

The other problem is the fact they allowed these companies, and I'm not sure if that means that only they are granted specific permission to do film work or if other start ups can get involved as well.

Either way, you have to understand this is a big field, and there's money to be made. The *big* boys like DJI, 3DR or any other UAS manufacturer are a tiny spec compared to Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, etc. These corp have the tech and the experience to create and offer advanced UAS systems, and they'll understandably want a big share of the civilian market, once the FAA clears the sky that is.

But hopefully things will fall in place and reasonable certifications will be granted to those seeking to fly legally.

October 3, 2014 at 2:06AM

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J. Fandino
Drone sales at www.providentialsystems.com
95

I have a question,what make something a drone? I notice the same question ask several different ways on this page. Is it a self navigating flying platform Example: RC Helicopter with camera. I can't imagine its really safety that's the biggest concern with all the RC's with cameras on them for years. Perhaps the legal part is about where the craft is flown and what or who is record and if they consent to said recording? It seem like the FAA is trying to tackle a issue not unlike the FCC has had to handle. The problem of average consumers blundering into trouble with technology and unintended consequences.

October 4, 2014 at 6:24PM

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Bart
81

what if I was to charge people for an (obviously) unmanned paper airplane flight, commercial interest...

January 15, 2015 at 10:08AM, Edited January 15, 10:07AM

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Tom
Technician
81