US FAA considers permitting the use of drones for filming movies

Seven aerial photo and video production companies have filed for permission to use drones

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is considering exemptions that will allow the use of drones for filming movies.

Seven aerial photo and video production companies have asked for regulatory exemptions to use the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) for the film and television industry, the FAA said Monday.

The exemption, if granted, will however be on a case-to-case basis and a far cry from the industry demand for 'open skies' for commercial drones.

Already Amazon.com and other companies have said that they plan to use drones for commercial purposes such as delivery of packages. Amazon said last year that the launch of its Prime Air service, powered by drones, would depend on rules for civilian unmanned aircraft from the FAA, which it expects by 2015.

"If the exemption requests are granted, there could be tangible economic benefits as the agency begins to address the demand for commercial UAS operations," FAA said in a statement. It said companies from three other industries, including precision agriculture, power line and pipeline inspection and oil and gas flare stack inspection, have approached the FAA and are also considering filing exemption requests.

The petitioners must still obtain operational approval from the FAA. The Motion Picture Association of America has described the UAS as a "new tool for storytellers" that will allow for creative and exciting aerial shots. MPAA said its members had worked with some of the applicants during overseas shoots.

FAA waivers or authorizations for UAS are currently available to public entities that want to fly a drone in civil airspace for purposes such as law enforcement, firefighting, border patrol, disaster relief, search and rescue, military training, and other government missions.

Commercial operations are authorized on a case-by-case basis, FAA said. Except for flights over the Artic, other commercial UAS flights have not been authorized so far.

The issue is, however, not without controversy. The FAA said in February that "there are no shades of gray in FAA regulations. Anyone who wants to fly an aircraft--manned or unmanned--in U.S. airspace needs some level of FAA approval." The agency has said that the operational and certification requirements for the operation of public unmanned aircraft systems in the national airspace will be set not later than Dec. 31, 2015.

An administrative law judge of the National Transportation Safety Board ruled in the case of photographer Raphael Pirker, who was fined US$10,000 by the FAA in October 2011 for flying recklessly a powered glider aircraft, that existing policy regarding the commercial use of drones, "cannot be considered as establishing a rule or enforceable regulation."

As the classification of UAS does not appear in the Federal Aviation Regulations, it is necessary to examine the FAA policy for the existence of a rule imposing regulatory authority concerning UAS operations, Judge Patrick G. Geraghty wrote in his ruling in March. The FAA has appealed the ruling to the full National Transportation Safety Board, which has the effect of staying the decision until the board rules.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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John Ribeiro

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