Why the FAA’s approval of film production drones goes far beyond Hollywood

September 26, 2014, 8:06 PM UTC
Drone in Flight
Drone in Flight
Photo: Richard Newstead—Getty Images/Flickr RM

If you’re in the burgeoning commercial drone industry, yesterday’s news was big—real big.

On Thursday, the Federal Aviation Administration grant a handful of television and film productions an exemption to its outright ban on the use of drones for commercial purposes. The exemption, only the second of its kind and the first of any meaningful scope, will allow those companies to employ unmanned aerial technology in their business operations even though the FAA hasn’t yet settled on a larger set of rules to govern drone use in the commercial sphere. (More on that later.)

The FAA’s decision is more than just a boon for Hollywood. It’s a signal the commercial drone industry’s long-simmering frustration with the FAA over its blanket prohibition on commercial drones could soon see some relief. Hollywood’s milestone exemption could be the foot in the door that countless companies and industries have sought in their efforts to incorporate drone technologies into their day-to-day operations. And it almost certainly will serve as the model other industries use to get their own drones in the sky sooner rather than later.

How Hollywood got there first

Where commercial drone applications are concerned, one often hears of use cases in agriculture, construction, oil and gas, mining, or logging. Surprise: Hollywood, with its need to capture overhead imagery often from perspectives too low for a helicopter and too high for a crane, has been quietly pushing for legalized drone use for years. Some of the companies involved in the exemption have long been using drones for videography purposes, both overseas and in the U.S., before the murky legal framework surrounding drones forced them from the sky. The demand, however, remained.

“The studios, the production companies, they’ve all wanted this,” says Tony Carmean, a producer and partner in production company Aerial MOB, one of the companies seeking exemption in the filing. “They claim they have more work than these seven companies can handle.”

Shepherded by the Motion Picture Association of America, seven television and film production companies filed for an exemption from the FAA’s general ban on commercial drones in late May under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, the bill mandating the FAA to allow small drones, including commercial drones, in the nation’s airspace. Section 333 exists to grant the FAA some flexibility in how it enforces its rules and allows it to grant exemptions to companies that can show very specific use cases, operations guidelines, and vehicle airworthiness to FAA officials. Until now, the FAA had granted only one exemption allowing oil giant BP (BP) to fly a drone in a small sliver of airspace in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

Hollywood’s exemption is the first granted to multiple companies and the first to throw an entire industry wide open for commercial drone use. (This being Hollywood, it promises to do so quite visibly.) For companies like Carmean’s Aerial MOB, the exemption is a huge relief. With the exception of some production work in Mexico City (where regulations are more lax) Aerial MOB hasn’t flown its equipment in months, during which time it has turned away commercial client after commercial client.

It’s a familiar story for the larger commercial drone industry: better-defined and less onerous regulations in other countries draw innovation and investment overseas, forcing U.S.-based drone manufacturers and operators to either do business elsewhere or wait out the FAA. “Unfortunately a lot of production companies are filming overseas where they can take advantage of this technology,” says a film industry source familiar with the pending exemption request. “Our hope is that that this exemption will bring that production back home.”

It’s no accident the film and TV production industry got here first, Carmean says. By their nature, TV and film sets are closed, tightly-controlled spaces where using drones is inherently less risky. All individuals present know that cameras are rolling, rendering privacy a non-issue. And the companies that work in the space already have years of experience flying their aerial hardware. One member of the consortium seeking the exemption, Flying-Cam Inc., even won an Oscar for its technical achievements in shooting scenes for the James Bond film “Skyfall” (shot overseas, of course; remember that prolonged rooftop chase in Istanbul?).

As such, the FAA feels relatively comfortable allowing the TV and film production industry to employ drones largely because it already has been doing so for years in other countries. But however big the boon for Hollywood production companies (the six companies covered under the exemptionare Aerial MOB LLC, Snaproll Media LLC, HeliVideo Productions, RC Pro Productions Consulting LLC, Astraeus Aerial, and Pictorvision Inc.; Flying-Cam’s request is still under review), the exemption should have significant implications for the drone industry at large as well as the myriad industries that will benefit from UAS technology.

Drones for everybody

News of Hollywood’s exemption is heartening for the dozens of other companies from a range of industries that have also filed for Section 333 exemptions with the FAA. The agency has imposed a 120-day review period for such filings on itself, and over the next few months several exemption filings from companies across a range of industries will come to term. The fact that Hollywood got its green light bodes well.

“It’s a good thing,” says Tomislav Zigo, director of virtual design and construction at engineering and construction firm Clayco, which has an exemption pending that would allow engineers to survey the company’s sprawling construction sites with drones. “That means we’re somewhere down there in the pipeline.”

Roughly 40 other companies have filed Section 333 requests–companies ranging from Amazon to BNSF Railroad to San Diego Gas and Electric–for applications that span sectors and industries. Those companies now hope that Hollywood’s successful exemption will help facilitate their own requests for Section 333 requests now that the FAA has a model for evaluating the filings and regulating the exemptions it grants. The way these exemptions are regulated by the FAA also offers clues on what broader commercial drone regulations might look like once they are issued sometime later this year. “I think they’re putting their toe in the water with these low-hanging fruits, and I think they’re going to learn a lot and implement that into the rule-making process,” Carmean says.

The FAA is expected to release proposed regulations to the industry by the end of this year and, after a period of comment, will likely implement binding regulations sometime late next year or early 2016.

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