FAA screens ideas about allowing drones for movies

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WASHINGTON – The Federal Aviation Administration received scores of comments about allowing moviemaking companies to fly drones, and the bulk urged safe rules to avoid midair collisions with passenger planes.

Peter Newfield, a technician and location manager for film and video from Soquel, Calif., said drones would be safer than occupied helicopters while flying with less noise, smaller crews and less fire danger while filming, for example around Monterey Bay.

“It is my recommendation to license the professional radio-controlled aircraft companies that are able to pass FAA guidelines,” Newfield said.

Jerry Gardner of Fort Smith, Ark., said the FAA should make some initial rules, such as setting height, speed and weight limits for drones, and “get this show on the road.”

But Nick McMahon, a commercial helicopter pilot with experience in film and television, said a remote pilot should hold a commercial pilot’s license to ensure they are following FAA regulations, which would be prohibitive for many operators.

“So far, it’s clear that no commercial drone operators are complying with any laws,” McMahon said.

Wednesday was the final day for comments. The FAA hasn’t said how fast it will make a decision, but industry lawyers expect an answer within months.

The moviemaking exception is being considered as the FAA develops comprehensive rules for all drones under a congressional deadline of September 2015.

In setting up six experimental ranges to test how drones fly, the FAA focused on safety issues such as avoiding collisions between drones and planes, and ensuring they land safely if they lose connection to their remote pilots.

Commercial drones attract attention because the industry is expected to grow significantly once rules are adopted. The Aerospace Industries Association said the moviemaking proposal is focused on safe operations with licensed airmen at the controls.

In contrast to the much more prolific and emotional outpouring over cellular service aboard passenger planes, the 71 drone submissions tended to offer detailed comments about how FAA could craft rules – or the dangers that drones represent.

For example, several people suggested specific altitude limits for drones such as 250 to 1,000 feet off the ground. While the moviemakers proposed a 400-foot ceiling, McMahon said he routinely flies lower than that and would be endangered.

Richard Mock, a search-and-rescue pilot, voiced concern about seeing and avoiding drones below 1,000 feet.

“It is difficult enough to see and thus avoid larger aircraft,” Mock said. “When you start mixing very small aircraft into the system it will be virtually impossible to see tiny aircraft during daylight hours.”

Several people suggested that drones broadcast signals so that occupied planes would be aware of where they are flying, but that could be a hurdle for many drones that don’t carry such equipment.

“‘See and avoid’ has been for decades the primary rule in safe operation of flights,” Javier Abalo said. “We need to make sure that ‘see and avoid’ is the No. 1 priority for” drone operators.

But several people were deeply skeptical of allowing drones in the same airspace with passenger planes. While the FAA considered the moviemaker proposal, the National Park Service banned drones June 20 above its properties because of concerns about disturbing park visitors or wildlife.

“Just say ‘no,'” Jeffrey Aryan of Corona, Calif., told the FAA. “There is just too much room for abuse from all sides.”

The seven applicants are independent aerial cinematography companies that sought exemptions with the help of the Motion Picture Association of America.

The companies are: Aerial MOB, Asraeus, Flying-Cam, HeliVideo Productions, Pictorvision, Snaproll Media and Vortex.

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Unmanned Aircraft Fly Local Skies

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During this year’s Traverse City Film Festival, someone was observed flying an unmanned aerial system over Front Street crowds. Earlier in the summer, EAI, LLC of Grand Rapids spent a day shooting photography and cinematography using a low-altitude unmanned system at the Grand Traverse Resort & Spa in Acme.

The presence of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) in northern Michigan’s skies is on the rise – moving beyond the traditional military applications (i.e. “drones”) the general public associates with them – into civil aviation uses such as surveying of crops and acrobatic aerial footage in filmmaking.

“We wanted to capture a greater sense of destination, and what better way to do that than a couple of hundred feet above the ground,” says the resort’s eMarketing Manager Luke Mason.

It was a two-man crew, says Mason, with one controlling the camera and the other flying the quadcopter-type unmanned system. Mason says the company has a background working with defense contractors and the resort relied on it to be following all regulations around the UAS’ use.

So where exactly does the law come down on these unmanned systems, and what’s likely to come next?

The Ticker turned to Aaron Cook, director of aviation at Northwestern Michigan College (NMC), for some schooling on the rules and regulations.

Cook says it comes down to whether the unmanned systems are being used for pleasure or for profit. If the UAS is used solely for recreation – going out and flying it around for fun – that is legal, explains Cook.

However, “if you take that same aircraft for pursuit of commercial activity, then it’s essentially illegal unless you are in an approved airspace,” he says. Right now, manufacturers selling to military operations or public entities doing research and development are the two ways to legally fly the systems.

Cook says there is an argument among some operators that these systems aren’t technically flying “in the airspace,” but Cook points out that hot air balloon or a helicopter could collide with them.

There is also a “fuzzy” distinction between high-end hobby level equipment and unmanned aerial systems, Cook adds.
Hobbyists and professionals alike await the Federal Aviation Administration’s official opening of U.S. airspace to commercial UAS operations for aircraft 55 pounds and under, which could happen in the next 18 months, according to Cook.

“Ideas for using UAS for commercial applications will be viable,” he says. “There will be opportunities.”

And NMC is readying students for them. It is one of only a handful of colleges in the country offering UAS operator training and is authorized to fly the unmanned systems at Yuba Airport, south of Elk Rapids.

The Grand Traverse Resort hasn’t released footage from its shoot yet, says Mason, but will be integrating it into its website and in television spots very soon. He adds that they are also exploring doing both fall and winter shoots to assist its marketing as an all-season destination.

 

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