The Federal Aviation Administration has taken a big step forward on drones: It's now allowing some filmmakers to operate robotic flying cameras on commercial movie and TV sets.
Thursday's decision marks the first time the agency has granted a commercial entity an exemption from the rules that prohibit drones from flying in U.S. airspace without a special certificate. The civil drone industry has been pressuring the FAA to relax that ban and to develop new regulations designed to safely integrate unmanned vehicles into the nation's air traffic system. While we're still waiting for those formal rules, the FAA is now saying that making movies with drones, or TV shows, or advertisements, or anything else you might do on a closed production set, is legal — so long as you can prove it's safe.
"There has been a lot of interest around this technology lately," said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, "and I have determined that using unmanned aircraft for this purpose does not pose a risk to national airspace users."
Here's everything we know about the announcement, and what this means for the future of drone regulation.
Who's getting an exemption?
Six film and TV production companies, represented by the Motion Picture Association of America, asked the FAA in May for a special ruling. They were later joined by a seventh company, but the FAA is still weighing that last application.
What does the exemption entail?
In their petitions, the production companies explained how they'd go about making their operations safe. They offered to require their pilots to have private pilot certificates. They also said they'd keep the drones within the closed area of the set and within the operator's line of sight at all times.
The FAA accepted those conditions and stipulated other requirements. For example, the drones won't be able to fly higher than 400 feet and won't be able to operate at night, though FAA director Michael Huerta told reporters Thursday that the agency might revisit the curfew upon getting more safety data.
In exchange, the companies won't have to follow some regulations pertaining to maintenance and equipment. They also won't be subject to a requirement that forces aircraft operators to store manuals on board — which, on a drone, would be difficult to do.
So, we're going to start seeing movies that were shot by drone now?
Actually, there are a number of popular films already on the market that involved drone footage. Among them: "Star Trek: Into Darkness," "The Hunger Games," "The Dark Knight Rises" and a host of others. But until now, directors have had to go to international locations to film those shots legally.
It makes total sense why the film industry would be first to receive an exemption. The industry already has experience shooting movies with aircraft and maintains plenty of safety procedures for doing so. And using drones may actually boost safety on the set, compared to shooting film from a helicopter or other large, flying metal object.
Are we going to see more exemptions given out?
Yes. The FAA is considering 40 other petitions for commercial exemptions on a case-by-case basis.
"This is not a one-off thing just to help calm frustrated people in the industry," said Jesse Kallman, the head of regulatory affairs at Airware and a former FAA engineer. "This is something that will continue. There will be applications approved in areas like agriculture … surveying and mapping."
What does this mean for the FAA's drone regulations?
The agency is still working on its official rules, the first of which was supposed to be unveiled in August. But the FAA missed that deadline. It's not expected to release a rule on small drones (those weighing less than 55 pounds) until early next year, and rules won't be finalized for another year after that.
That's why, in the meantime, the FAA is giving out individual exceptions in response to specific petitions. But that's no substitute for formal regulations, said Melissa Rudinger of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.
"We do need rules in place," said Rudinger, "because the FAA can't possibly keep up with demand if it has to keep issuing authorizations on a case-by-case basis. They need regulations so they don't have to do that."
Could we see a flood of new applications now?
Certainly. And it won't be just small companies, either. Amazon has already asked the FAA for permission to test its delivery drones at its own facilities in the United States. With tech giants like Facebook and Google also exploring drone-based technologies, it's probably just a matter of time before these firms ask the FAA for an exemption, too.
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