Enhancing The View

When the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration gave six aerial photo and video production companies exemptions for the commercial use of unmanned aerial systems, was it a significant step forward or a case of too little too late?
By Patrick C. Miller | November 25, 2014

When the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration gave six aerial photo and video production companies exemption for the commercial use of unmanned aerial systems, was it a significant step forward or a case of too little too late?

The debate started in late September when the FAA announced the granting of exemptions to the six businesses (a seventh was later issued to Flying-Cam) to operate UAS for moviemaking and television production.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx hailed the occasion as “a significant milestone in broadening commercial UAS use while ensuring we maintain our world-class safety record in all forms of flight.”

Chris Dodd, the former U.S. senator who heads the Motion Picture Association of America—the organization that petitioned the FAA for the exemption—called it “a victory for audiences everywhere” that gave “filmmakers yet another way to push creative boundaries and create the kinds of scenes and shots we could only imagine just a few years ago.”

But Michael Drobac, executive director of the Small UAV Coalition, reflected the view of other pundits when he groused, “We’re hopeful that future petitions that are approved will not necessarily have to be a cookie-cutter model of what was approved for the production companies in the closed-set filmmaking.”

Brendan Schulman, an attorney specializing in UAS law, opined, “I’m worried that it’s too small a step forward and it’s too narrowly limited.”

Some of the FAA restrictions include: no night operations; keeping the UAV within line of sight; operating UAVs on closed sets only; providing advanced notice of UAS flights; providing a plan of activities to an FAA Flight Service District; prohibiting UAV operations from a moving device or vehicle; and requiring a privately licensed pilot with a current third-class medical certificate and an observer.

So, what do the six companies that received the exemption think of it? How will it affect their ability to shoot movie and TV scenes from unmanned aerial vehicles, engage in aerial photography and record commercials? And, how do they view the process they went through, and will it open the way for other commercial UAS applications?

Eric Austin, owner of HeliVideo Productions in Austin, Texas, reflected Schulman’s view, saying, “There’s not much freedom about it. The limits they put on our use are quite severe.”

However, representatives of the other five companies were more charitable in their assessments of the FAA exemption. They all agreed that while they might not have gotten everything they wanted, they got what they needed.

“The FAA was very cognizant of creating fair limitations,” says Tom Hallman, president, Pictorvision, Van Nuys, California. “We addressed all the safety issues, yet are still able to use these things commercially.”

Preston Ryon, owner of SnapRoll Media, Franklin, Tennessee, expressed satisfaction with the way the FAA regulated the companies. “It does it in a safe way, and that’s the best part of it. It’s just restrictive enough to keep things safe and organized,” he says.

For Chris Schuster, owner of Vortex Aerial, Riverside, California, the exemption provides an opportunity to return to the U.S. for filming on closed sets. “Up until the last two years, we’ve had to operate outside the United States,” he says.

Hal Winer, director of operations for Astraeus Aerial, Encino, California, cites another reason the FAA’s exemption is important to the companies, which is to separate the professionals in the field from the amateurs.

“There’s a ton of hobbyists out there who are throwing cameras on a UAS and marketing themselves as aerial cinematographers,” he notes. “Everyone on our team has extensive experience in the film, television and advertising industries. We know where to put the camera. We know how to use the camera. We know how to get the shots. We also have experience with the FAA in safety and flight operations.

“We’re not just trying to capitalize on an industry that has the need,” Winer continues. “We are professionals in the industry. We recognize the need and we’re filling it based on our expertise.”

Ryon echoes Winer’s view: “Just because anybody can buy a UAV doesn’t make it safe for them to be out there flying. We’re all for other people going through the same process we went through so that they can be licensed and safe. There’s a need for more than just six operators.”

Although the process actually started months before the MPAA officially filed for the exemptions in early June, it took nearly four months to finalize them. All six companies were mostly satisfied with the process and the manner in which the FAA conducted it.

“Given the tough task that the FAA is facing in terms of integrating commercial use of UAV’s into the national airspace, I think it was a reasonable process,” says Tony Carmean, founder of Aerial MOB, Carlsbad, California. “With that said, it took a huge amount of time, effort, and finances to develop all of the proper documentation that the FAA required. It was not easy by any means.”

Austin agrees that the process was lengthy and expensive, requiring “powerful consultants and lawyers.” However, he adds, “Considering how slow the FAA moves, I was actually surprised when they moved quickly toward the end. I know they’ve been under tremendous pressure for years on this subject.”

There is no disagreement among the six companies that the ability to use UAVs for their work improves safety and lowers costs while opening new avenues for creativity.

As Hallman explains, in contrast to using an expensive full-sized manned helicopter, “Just because of the size, weight and noise, we can get much lower, much closer to actors. You don’t have a giant combustion engine making tons of noise. You don’t have giant prop wash blowing stuff all over the set. We can fly indoors.”

And, he adds, “Because the wing span of the class of multi-rotors we’re going to be using is three to four feet versus 36 feet, it opens up tons of locations and really interesting places we can now put a camera that you couldn’t even dream of before.”

Aerial MOB’s Carmean says, “This technology has the ability to get perspectives not possible with any other traditional film production tools like dollies, jibs, cranes, cable cameras, Russian arm cars and full-size aircraft. The use of UAS allows for combining all of these types of shots into one continuous shot, and we can do them much more efficiently in terms of time and budget.”

Schuster references another instance in which UAS will help in capturing aerial shots.

“We can operate on city streets with the caveat that a set perimeter is secured and excludes any non-production personnel,” he says. “It keeps the general public out of the eye of the camera so it preserves their privacy, and it also preserves their safety as well.”

In granting the exemption, the FAA recognized the obvious safety benefits that UAS offer over conventional manned aircraft.

“The fact that the aircraft are so much smaller, the blades are so much smaller and we’re using electric power instead of liquid fuel, there’s a lot less that can go wrong if there’s an accident,” Hallman says. “Just not having hundreds of gallons of fuel that can spill if there’s an accident really changes the safety issues.”

Among the six companies, there’s broad agreement that the FAA will use the experience gained from the regulatory process and the commercial UAS operations to eventually open the door to integrating other applications into the national airspace.

“The entertainment industry sector of drone use is probably the best place for them to start with the integration process,” Schuster says.

Austin concurs, saying: “I know the FAA is using us as the first test case, and it makes sense because we operate in the tightly controlled movie and TV arena. They are moving on to other areas such as agriculture, pipe and transmission line inspection, and flare stack inspection. These will take more time to approve, but I expect we’ll see some news on this front soon.”

As Hallman notes, now that the aerial cinematographers can legally operate UAS, it should provide the FAA with guidance to develop regulations for other industries.  

“We’re going to generate a whole bunch of data that the FAA can use and figure out for the rulemaking process,” he says. “What is a reasonable amount of regulation? It’s a learning process for everybody. We can create standards that just haven’t been happening so far. This visibility should give the FAA and the public at large the information they need to come up with reasonable, permanent rulemaking.”

There’s also an expectation that as the companies demonstrate they can operate under the FAA’s regulations, some of the restrictions could be relaxed.

“In this initial approval, we are not going to be allowed to perform nighttime operations due to insufficient data for such operations,” says Carmean. “The FAA has said that they are open to approving nighttime operations in the near future if or when we are able to establish safe operational procedures.”

Winer says Astraeus Arial has a proprietary system that enables its UAV to fly blind. However they can’t use it under the FAA regulations. “We anticipate that rule changing down the road, but for right now, we’re fine with it. We’ll take what we can get,” he says.

Schuster says that going through the process has changed his perspective on the FAA and the regulatory process.

“Honestly, I have a newfound respect for that branch of our government. Being that we’ve been working hand in hand with these people, we’ve learned that the time commitments and the perceived delays were actually very well justified by the Federal Aviation Administration,” he says.

“They rose to the occasion,” Schuster adds. “They got the job done in due course and actually in record time. Considering how complex the problem was, they really did an excellent job. They realize that if things don’t work out right, they’re going to be the ones that answer for it.”

Ryon also expressed admiration for the manner in which the FAA conducted the process.

“The FAA was super-professional and moved as fast as they possibly could while keeping safety in mind,” he says. “They wanted this type of technology to be used, but they wanted to do it in a way that when it’s introduced for commercial use, it’s done safely.”

Ultimately, Carmean believes the public will notice the difference in what aerial cinematographers can accomplish with UAS.

“The true beauty of what this technology offers film production is low-altitude aerial cinematography, not necessarily just the high altitude, wide-angle shots,” he explains.  “The big winner here is the consumer. This technology will enhance the film-viewing experience.”

Author: Patrick C. Miller
Staff Writer, UAS Magazine
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