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FAA decision paves way for drone use in US films; allows 6 production companies to use drones in filming

Photo by Vince LoPresti via Flickr Creative Commons

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The U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration will allow six production companies to fly drones for the purpose of shooting films, television shows or other video products.

The decision, announced Thursday by Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, is the first step to allowing the film and television industry to use drones — or "unmanned aircraft systems" in the National Airspace System. 

"There has been a lot of interest around this technology lately, and I have determined that using unmanned aircraft for this purpose does not pose a risk to national airspace users," Secretary Foxx said on a conference call.

"We're introducing unmanned aircraft into America's airspace incrementally and with the interest of safety first," said FAA administrator Huerta."This process opens up a whole new avenue for companies and organizations wishing to safely integrate unmanned aircraft into their business." 

Several industries want to use drones, but as the FAA evaluates the ramifications, the agency has banned their commercial use. Until now, as the Associated Press points out,  the only permit for commercial drone operations the FAA has granted has been to the ConocoPhillips oil company, which has flown two kinds of unmanned aircraft in unpopulated areas of Alaska and over the Arctic Ocean with significant limitations on their use.  

As a result, a lot of the sweeping aerial footage in commercials, promotional videos and thrilling action sequences in movies like "Skyfall" have been shot by drones in foreign countries with more permissive drone environments.

Skyfall scene using drone technology

Seven production and aerial photography companies sought to change that by applying for exemptions to the FAA commercial drone ban: Aerial Mob, Astraeus Aerial Cinema Systems, Flying-Cam Aerial Systems, HeliVideo Productions, PictorVision, Snaproll Media and Vortex Aerial.

Aerial Mob video

The FAA granted exemptions to six of them, saying that it is still considering the application of Flying-Cam Aerial Systems. 

PictorVision video

Former U.S. Senator Chris Dodd, now head of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), called the FAA's decision "a victory for audiences everywhere" and good news for U.S. production companies.

"Our industry has a history of successfully using this innovative technology overseas — making movies like 'Skyfall' and 'Transformers: Age of Extinction,' to name a couple — and we are proud to now be on the leading edge of its safe commercial use here at home," Dodd said.   

"To make a living, we've had to go outside the U.S. borders for the last year," said Tony Carmean of Aerial Mob, which has offices in San Diego and Los Angeles. As it waited for the FAA's blessing, his company only filmed with drones in foreign countries. He shot a Chevrolet commercial overseas and recently filmed a cell phone commercial in Mexico.  

"For the cinematographers and directors, it allows them so much flexibility and imagination," Carmean said of the FAA's decision. "The type of shots they can get with unmanned aerial systems, you can't get them any other way."

In applying for the FAA exemptions, the seven companies worked together with the MPAA to help the FAA consider procedures and standards for drone use on sets.  The companies formed the Unmanned Aerial Cinematography Association.  In a statement, the FAA said:

In their applications, the firms said the operators will hold private pilot certificates, keep the Unmanned Aircraft System within line of sight at all times and restrict flights to the "sterile area" on the set.  In granting the exemption, FAA accepted these safety conditions, adding an inspection of the aircraft before each flight, and prohibiting operations at night. The agency also will issue Certificates of Waiver or Authorization (COAs) that mandate flight rules and timely reports of any accident or incidents.

"It is difficult to get any two competing companies to agree on anything -- let alone 7 companies to agree on 100's of pages of policy," said Tom Hallman, President of Van Nuys-based PictorVision. "But we saw the importance of coming together to create thorough, safe and reasonable operating policies and procedures in order to advance the industry."