The Federal Aviation Administration has reportedly granted seven movie and TV companies permission to use drones for filming. This would mark the first time businesses world be able to operate the unmanned aircraft in populated areas. (Reuters)

In a major decision that is likely to set the stage for more commercial drone flights, the Federal Aviation Administration is planning to announce Thursday that it will permit Hollywood filmmakers to operate drones on movie sets, according to current and former U.S. officials.

The FAA has long enforced a de facto ban on the use of drones for commercial purposes. But under a 2012 law passed by Congress, the agency is developing rules that will eventually legalize the practice and allow drones of all sizes to operate in the national airspace.

Prior to this week, the FAA had granted permits to only two companies to fly drones — both in remote parts of Alaska under highly restrictive conditions. The decision to allow several movie-making companies to use drones is the first time that businesses will be able to operate the aircraft in populated areas.

The FAA has been evaluating applications since May from seven video-
production firms that want to use camera-equipped drones on movie sets instead of regular helicopters or airplanes, which are more costly to operate.

The applications have been endorsed by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and have received strong backing from a plethora of industries that are lobbying for permission to fly drones of their own, including real estate agents, agribusiness interests and oil-production companies.

Commercial drone use is on the rise, along with concerns about safety. Government-approved operators have crashed nearly two dozen civilian drones since 2009, and federal regulators are urging caution before something goes terribly wrong. (Davin Coburn/The Washington Post)

Among those submitting letters of support to the FAA is the News Media Coalition, a group of publishers, broadcasters and wire services that includes The Washington Post. The coalition advocates the use of drones for newsgathering purposes, a practice currently prohibited by the FAA’s restrictions on commercial flights.

Pilot groups and aviation-safety advocates have opposed the filmmakers’ bids in formal comments to the FAA, saying that the Hollywood firms need to provide more safeguards to ensure that drones do not crash in populated areas or endanger air traffic.

John McGraw, an aerospace consultant for the MPAA and the seven filmmakers, said the drones would fly under “very controlled environments” with “very little exposure to risk at all.”

The Hollywood companies had yet to receive official word from the FAA but were expecting a formal decision Thursday, McGraw said. “They’re optimistic that they’ll get it,” he added.

An FAA spokesman declined to comment.

The cinematic firms have applied for permission to fly the drones not just in Hollywood but anywhere in the country as long as they meet certain safety conditions. Flights would “occur over private or controlled-access property,” and drones would stay at least 100 feet away from people not part of the production crews, according to the applications.

Paperwork filed with the FAA also states that the camera-
bearing drones would weigh less than 55 pounds. They would fly no faster than 57 mph and no higher than 400 feet to ensure that they do not interfere with other aircraft.

The seven companies are Astraeus Aerial, Aerial Mob, Flying-Cam, Snaproll Media, Vortex Aerial, Pictorvision and HeliVideo Productions.

Thanks to a boom in robotics technology and satellite-guided navigation, drones have become relatively cheap and easy to fly, with some small hobbyist models available for less than $500. Most come with miniature video cameras, a combination that has revolutionized surveillance from the air.

According to the FAA, it is permissible to fly drones for noncommercial purposes as long as operators keep them below 400 feet and at least five miles from an airport. The FAA has also granted hundreds of special certificates to the military and other government agencies to fly drones in civilian airspace.

As the use of drones proliferates, however, so do the number of accidents and unsafe encounters with other aircraft.

A Washington Post investigation disclosed in June that rogue civilian drones had flown dangerously close to airports or passenger aircraft in 15 cases in the previous two years. In addition, more than 400 large military drones have crashed in major accidents around the world since 2001.

The FAA has said it will issue proposed standards and rules to legalize the widespread use of small commercial drones by the end of the year. Under the federal government’s regulatory process, however, those rules probably would not take effect until 2016 or later. Legalizing the use of drones that weigh more than 55 pounds is expected to take even longer.

The agency has faced pressure from drone manufacturers and other businesses to move faster. In May, the FAA said it would allow companies to apply for exemptions to the commercial drone ban on a case-by-case basis, and the agency indicated that it would look favorably on bids to use drones to make movies, inspect pipelines and monitor crops.

The applications from Hollywood were the first to receive scrutiny from the FAA. Since then, other would-be drone operators have lined up to file bids. Those include Amazon.com. The firm has asked the FAA for permission to test small drones that it is developing to deliver lightweight packages to customers’ doorsteps. A decision is pending.

Amazon’s chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Post.