June 4, 2014
After putting money behind the push for revamped commercial drone laws, Hollywood is officially petitioning the Federal Aviation Administration to let filmmakers fly unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) before final rules are put in place. Seven aerial production companies have requested an exemption from flight regulations, pilot licensing requirements, and airworthiness certification rules, none of which have been finalized. FAA rules allow the agency to grant exemptions for “narrowly-defined, controlled, low-risk situations,” and film and video companies hope that includes using low-cost drones for shots that would otherwise require a helicopter.
“Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) offer the motion picture and television industry an innovative and safer option for filming,” says Neil Fried of the MPAA, which facilitated the petition. “This new tool for storytellers will allow for creative and exciting aerial shots, and is the latest in a myriad of new technologies being used by our industry to further enhance the viewer experience.” In order to actually get the exemptions, however, the companies must prove that their plan would benefit the public good, and that it would not create unsafe conditions. If the FAA approves those exemptions, it will still need to approve individual operations.
Currently, public-sector groups like police, fire departments, or government agencies can obtain exemptions to operate UAVs. According to an FAA release, agricultural groups, power line and pipeline inspectors, and oil and gas flare inspectors have also approached the agency about exemptions and are considering their own petitions. Small drones are already common video tools, but they hover in uncertain legal territory. Private hobbyists are generally allowed to fly them under 400 feet outside populated areas, but the FAA hasn’t created robust regulations for for-profit flights, though Congress has ordered it to do so by 2015. Until then, commercial drone flight is officially banned, with a court case that could legalize it stuck in appeals. In late May, a real estate photographer who uses UAVs to shoot houses received a notice from the FAA advising him that there was no legal framework for his business.
If this exemption is granted, it’s extremely unlikely you’d see Hollywood drones filming a busy street scene in Manhattan, but they could be used as cheaper and arguably safer alternatives to traditional aerial photography on controlled sets. While there’s no timeline for when the FAA will consider a petition, it faces mounting pressure to make commercial UAV flight easier — alongside the film industry, Amazon is reportedly pushing for a way to fly its delivery drones to customers. A number of news media companies, including The New York Times Company and the Associated Press, also oppose the current ban on First Amendment grounds.