Companies seek approval for unmanned aerial filming

June 4, 2014

Seven aerial photo and video production companies are asking the FAA for permission to use small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) for television and movie filming, the FAA announced June 2.

While advancements in technology make it possible to capture stunning, high-resolution aerial video using small unmanned aircraft—a cheaper alternative to more costly, fuel-guzzling larger aircraft—the FAA only authorizes commercial unmanned aircraft use on a case-by-case basis. If granted, the exemptions would be the first FAA approvals of UAS use in the film and television industry, the FAA said.

Aerial MOB LLC, Astraeus Aerial, Flying-Cam Inc., HeliVideo Productions LLC, Pictorvision Inc., Snaproll Media LLC, and Vortex Aerial collectively developed the requests, facilitated by the Motion Picture Association of America. They apply to aircraft less than 55 pounds and include limitations on operations to ensure safety. The companies asked for exemptions to a variety of regulations, including the requirement to carry a flight manual in the aircraft, VFR fuel reserves, and the requirements to obtain an airworthiness certificate.

“Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) offer the motion picture and television industry an innovative and safer option for filming,” said Neil Fried, senior vice president of government and regulatory affairs for the Motion Picture Association of America Inc., in a media statement. “This new tool for storytellers will allow for creative and exciting aerial shots, and is the latest in a myriad of new technologies being used by our industry to further enhance the viewer experience. We welcome the FAA’s leadership and support their guidance to safely authorize the use of UASs for the motion picture and television industry.”

The FAA said in a media release that granting the requests could lead to “tangible economic benefits as the agency begins to address the demand for commercial UAS operations. However, all the associated safety issues must be carefully considered to make sure any hazards are appropriately mitigated.” The firms will have to show that their operations will not adversely affect safety, or will provide at least an equivalent level of safety to the applicable regulations.

According to the FAA, commercial UAS flights require a certified aircraft, certificated pilot, and operating approval; an FAQ page on the FAA website updated in May acknowledges that only two models have been approved for commercial use to date, and that those are only authorized to fly in the Arctic. The agency’s stance on commercial use took a hit in March when a judge dismissed a $10,000 fine the FAA had levied on a UAS operator for commercial use. The judge argued that the FAA does not address unmanned aircraft systems in the federal aviation regulations, and that a 2007 policy statement did not establish an enforceable regulation. The FAA has appealed the ruling, and prospective operators should note that the FAA policy is still in effect as the court case winds its way through the legal process.

The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 directed the FAA to draft a plan that will lead to safe integration of unmanned aircraft into the National Airspace System by Sept. 30, 2015, and the FAA said it expects to publish a proposed rule for unmanned systems under about 55 pounds later in 2014. AOPA has advocated for years for the safe integration of unmanned aircraft into the National Airspace System, and is actively participating in developing regulations for integrating small UAS into the system in a manner that protects manned flight. The exemptions for commercial operators in the film industry would provide for commercial operations before the rulemaking process is complete.

Sarah Deener

Sarah Deener | Editor – Web, AOPA

AOPA Editor – Web Sarah Deener has worked for AOPA since 2009 and has been a private pilot since 2011.