I, For One, Welcome Our New Drone Overlords – Part 2

The Schiebel Camcopter S-100 drone

The Schiebel Camcopter S-100 drone

As reported here on March 6 this year, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) dismissed a 2012 Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) fine of $10,000 levied against model aircraft hobbyist and photographer Raphael Piker. Piker had used a camera mounted on a radio-controlled aircraft to record video and take photos of the University of Virginia, and then sold the works to the school. The FAA presently bans commercial use of such unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) – popularly called drones – for commercial purposes.

But in responding to an appeal filed by Piker, the NTSB, which serves as the court of appeals for FAA civil penalties, ruled that “(at) the time of Respondent’s model aircraft operation…there was no enforceable FAA rule…applicable to model aircraft or for classifying model aircraft as an UAS.” The dismissal was viewed as an acknowledgement of drone technology evolving from the realm of hobbyists into commercial applications.

On Monday this week, the FAA made what may be the next step in that evolution when it announced in a press release that it’s reviewing applications from seven film and television production companies to use drones for aerial photography.

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which serves as an industry advocate, “facilitated the exemption requests”.

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Per the release, “The firms that filed the petitions are all independent aerial cinematography professionals who collectively developed the exemption requests as a requirement to satisfy the safety and public interest concerns of the FAA, MPAA and the public at large.” The companies are Aerial MOB LLC, Astraeus Aerial, Flying-Cam Inc., HeliVideo Productions LLC, Pictorvision Inc., Vortex Aerial, and Snaproll Media LLC.

In a written statement also issued on Monday, MPAA Senior Vice President of Government and Regulatory Affairs, Neil Fried, endorsed the FAA review, saying that drone use “…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.”

In exempting filmmakers, the agency will make it considerably less expensive for media producers to capture dramatic – but often prohibitively expensive – aerial shots. Without drones, such shots require piloted airplanes or helicopters outfitted with specialized camera mounts. The FAA statement in fact acknowledged filmmakers could see “tangible economic benefits” if the agency allows commercial drone use.

The statement did say, “However, all the associated safety issues must be carefully considered to make sure any hazards are appropriately mitigated,” and that, “The petitioner must still obtain operational approval from the FAA.”

Addressing safety concerns in their 14-page application, Tennessee-based SnapRoll Media, one of the seven applicant companies, said its aerial shots would be performed “under controlled conditions in airspace that is 1) limited 2) predetermined 3) controlled as to access and 4) would provide safety enhancements to the already safe operations in the film and television industry presently using conventional aircraft.” The application describes the shots being accomplished using a 55-pound drone traveling at speeds under 50 knots (57 mph), under 400 feet altitude, within line-of-site of its FAA-licensed operator, lasting under 30 minutes, and per a flight plan previously filed with the FAA. “All flights will occur over private or controlled access property with the property owner’s prior consent and knowledge. Filming will be of people who have also consented to being filmed or otherwise have agreed to be in the area where filming will take place.”

Per their website, Snaproll uses a Schiebel Camcopter S-100 fitted with a Cineflex gyro stabilized gimbal control system. See the embedded video below for more info.

The FAA is currently considering only the seven applications named in their Monday statement. Other producers would have to apply individually if the exemption is approved. The agency also said it’s received requests for exemptions from agriculture, power line and pipeline inspection, and oil and gas-line inspection companies.

The press release also mentions an FAA proposal for new regulations, to be finalized in November.

In the meantime, the agency is appealing the NTSB decision in the Piker case.

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