The Federal Aviation Administration said Monday it is considering giving permission to seven movie and television filming companies to use unmanned aircraft for aerial photography, a potentially significant step that could lead to greater relaxation of the agency's ban on commercial use of drones.
The Motion Picture Association of America helped file the request for exemptions on behalf of Aerial MOB LLC, Astraeus Aerial, Flying-Cam Inc., HeliVideo Productions LLC, Pictorvision Inc., Vortex Aerial, and Snaproll Media LLC, the FAA said in a statement. To receive the exemptions, the companies must show their drone operations won't harm safety, and would be in the public interest.
Currently, no commercial drone flights are permitted in U.S. with the lone exception of flights off the Alaskan coast over the Arctic Ocean by the Conoco Philips oil company. The FAA only granted permission for those flights after Congress told the agency to start permitting flights in the Arctic region.
The FAA has been under intense pressure from Congress and industry to allow commercial drone flights to do work that in many cases is too dirty, dull, or dangerous for manned aircraft. Drones are also often less expensive to operate than manned aircraft. The agency has been working for the past decade on safety regulations to permit widespread commercial drone use, but has repeatedly delayed issuing regulations.
The FAA's current timetable calls for releasing proposed regulations for operating small drones — usually defined as weighing less than 55 pounds — by November. It would take at least months, and possibly years, after that to make the regulations final.
FAA officials caution that rushing to gain the economic and other benefits of drones could put manned aircraft at risk. U.S. skies have more aircraft and more varied types of aircraft and aircraft operations than anywhere else in the world.
Ben Gielow, general counsel for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a trade association for the commercial drone industry, said he's pleased the FAA is considering the petitions. But he said if the agency "is only going to grant permission on a limited, case-by-case basis, then this doesn't really open up the skies for anyone who wants to fly."
Despite FAA's ban, drones have already been used by the movie industry, including to film parts of the Martin Scorsese-directed movie "The Wolf of Wall Street." Remote or autonomous aircraft can be a godsend to the filmmaking process. Shots where you'd normally have to use a helicopter — with pilot, copilot, camera operator, and more — can be done from the ground with drones, saving money and manpower.
A wide range of other businesses from real estate agents to beer makers to journalists have also ignored the drone ban.
At least two lawsuits have been filed challenging the ban. An administrative law judge with the National Transportation Safety Board who heard one of the challenges ruled that the FAA can't enforce regulations that don't yet exist. The agency is appealing that decision.