It’s official: The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has given Hollywood the green light to use drone aircraft (properly known as unmanned autonomous vehicles, or UAVs) in the United States. On Thursday, the FAA granted exemptions to six different production companies that allow them to use drones for commercial purposes. Before this, the only for-profit use of drones legally permitted in the United States was for a handful of oil- and energy-industry projects in the Arctic.
The decision is the culmination of years of lobbying by drone enthusiasts, the aerospace industry, and the powerful Motion Picture Association of America. UAVs are frequently used for aerial film shots outside of the United States. Drone camera work (mainly for chase and fight scenes) has been used in movies from Skyfall to Wolf of Wall Street to the Harry Potter series; industry blog DroneLife has a useful guide to UAVs in the motion picture industry.
The six production companies, Aerial Mob, Astraeus Aerial, HeliVideo Productions, Pictorvision, RC Pro Productions Consulting, and Snaproll Media, are required to only use UAVs domestically for the creation of scripted content under heavy restrictions: Operators must hold pilots’ licenses and UAVs must weigh under 55 pounds.
MPAA chairman Chris Dodd was in attendance at the news conference where the FAA announced the waiver. In a prepared statement sent to Fast Company by the MPAA, Dodd said: “Today’s announcement is a victory for audiences everywhere as it gives 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. 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.”
Industry watchers expect the FAA to expand access to UAVs in the film industry over the coming years, which will be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, filmmakers will have the capability to create high-quality aerial photography for very little money. On the other hand, business will sharply decline for the crane operators and helicopter operators who currently dominate aerial photography in Hollywood.
Fast Company spoke with principals with two of the UAV video companies the FAA granted waivers to today. Both were having extremely busy days, but were obviously happy about the new commercial opportunities for their businesses.
Tony Carmean of Aerial Mob said that the new ruling allows his company to “legitimately film a very narrow focus-scripted piece that’s scripted–a commercial, TV show, or feature film in a very defined working area. It has to be a sterile, cordoned-off area with a perimeter. The biggest thing to do is to show we can do it safely.” Carmean’s company worked on a shoot in Mexico City earlier this month; his company originally applied for a FAA waiver on May 27, 2014. Aerial Mob’s clients include Chrysler, Tesla, the BBC, MTV, Adidas, and Harvard University.
Another filmmaker granted an exception, Eric Austin of HeliVideo, said the ruling would likely lead to an uptick in business. “Up until today, flying UAVs for commercial purposes was ‘illegal’ or not authorized by the FAA, which put serious pinch in the growth of our business since we could only operate outside of the country.” HeliVideo’s clients include Disney, NBCUniversal, CBS News, and HBO Sports.
Operating overseas is easier for many UAV filmmakers; the United States currently has one of the world’s strictest set of rules on for-profit UAV use, though other countries have rules of their own. Chris Kippenberger, who heads up a Germany-based studio specializing in UAV shoots for automobile companies, told Fast Company that his country requires a lift-off authorization for every flight and has strict liability and frequency requirements.
The FAA’s decision to allow UAVs for aerial commercial photography in the United States is the latest step in legislators’ efforts to integrate unmanned aircraft into America’s civilian airspace. As a result of more than a decade of technological innovation largely fueled by the United States’ post-9/11 military adventures in the Middle East, aerospace advances originally used for warfare are being retooled and repurposed for commercial and scientific purposes. UAVs can be amazing tools for the natural sciences thanks to sensors that can register all sorts of data from the environment. And as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos knows well,they’re also future game-changers when it comes to consumer deliveries.
While the entertainment industry has positioned themselves as one of the biggest test markets for commercial UAVs (alongside the energy industry), the real money-maker for drone manufacturers is in the world of agriculture. A growing discipline known as “precision agriculture” uses aerial sensors, often built into UAVs, to monitor water, fertilizer, pesticide, insect infestation, and other metrics across huge tracts of land. According to a report by UAV trade group Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), UAVs will have an impact of $82 billion by 2025–most of which will be in the agriculture sector.
Amazon.com and Warren Buffet’s freight giant BNSF Railway Company have also applied for UAV exemptions similar to the filmmakers’ from the FAA.