UPDATED WITH MORE DETAILS: The FAA has approved the limited use of drones as camera platforms for film and TV productions, opening the skies to swarms of small, camera-mounted planes and mini-helicopters over film locations across the country. Unmanned aerial cameras are legal elsewhere in the world, but have been prohibited for commercial use in the U.S. until now.
MPAA chairman Chris Dodd today praised the lifting of the ban as “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.”
Dodd said that allowing producers to use camera drones also “encourages more movie and TV production in the U.S.” and “supports job creation and revenue growth around the country.” It’s expected to reduce job opportunities for many of Hollywood’s helicopter and fixed-wing pilots and their camera crews, however.
As of now, only six aerial photo companies have been granted permission to use camera drones on film and TV productions, although the permitting model established by the MPAA that was approved by the FAA and the Department of Transportation opens the door for many others to follow suit.
Safety guidelines include requirements that drones be operated by licensed pilots and that they can’t be flown out of sight of the operator. A fire safety officer and an emergency medical technician must also be present on set in the event of a mishap. The drones will also not be allowed to fly at night, though the FAA and the Department of Transportation my lift that in the future.
“I’ve determined that using unmanned aircraft for this purpose does not pose a risk to national airspace users,” U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told reporters during a news conference. “For that reason, we have given this permission to six aerial photo and video production companies. This is the first step to allowing the film and television industry to use unmanned aircraft systems in our nation’s airspace, and is a milestone in the wider effort to allow unmanned aircraft for many different types of commercial use.”
Safety guidelines include requirements that the drones be operated by licensed pilots and that they cannot be flown out of sight of the operator. A fire safety officer and an emergency medical technician must also be present on set in the event of a mishap.
The use of camera drones is considerably cheaper, more environmentally friendly, and safer than using helicopters as camera platforms. Indeed, helicopter crashes have taken more lives on film sets than any other type of accident in modern times. Since 1980, 33 film and TV workers — nearly one a year — have been killed in helicopter filming accidents around the world, including 14 in the U.S. and 15 more in accidents by American companies shooting abroad.
During today’s news conference, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta expressed the opinion that drones will be safe for use. “We’re introducing unmanned aircraft into America’s airspace incrementally and with the interest of safety first,” he said.
In their prepared remarks, neither Foxx nor Huerta used the word “drone,” which has negative connotations for some Americans.
Dodd, the former U.S. senator, praised the FAA and the DOT for their rapid response to its petition to open the skies to movie drones – a process that took only 120 days from filing to today’s announcement. “This is a big deal for us and an important day for the industry,” he said.