Movie makers said to win US approval for unmanned drones

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Alan Levin

The government plans to issue the first permits for commercial drone flights in the continental US on Thursday, granting waivers for seven movie and television companies, according to two people with knowledge of the plans.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will let the production companies fly small drones on closed sets in the US, said the people, who asked not to be identified because they weren’t authorized to discuss the announcement. The companies include Flying-Cam Inc., which has already used drones overseas to capture sequences for the James Bond film Skyfall.

Forty other companies have applied for exemptions to fly drones in the US, including Amazon.com Inc. and Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s BNSF Railway Co. Thursday’s action would pave the way for interim approvals as formal regulations governing how companies can legally use unmanned aircraft in their businesses are still at least a year away.

“It’s a huge step,” Douglas Marshall, division manager of unmanned aviation regulations and standards at New Mexico State University, said in an interview. The seven film and TV production companies filed almost identical petitions with the FAA on 2 June seeking to fly drones weighing less than 25kg no more than 400 feet from the ground within a “sterile area”.

They would be operated by a licensed pilot aided by a spotter to ensure safety, according to the seven applications. Each operator would submit a written plan of operations to local FAA offices at least three days before shooting begins.

Academy Award

So far, film companies wanting to use drones have had to do their shooting in other countries with more permissive rules. Flying-Cam used drones mainly for Istanbul-filmed sequences in “Skyfall.” It won a scientific and engineering award this year for its unmanned aircraft filming technology from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the group behind the Oscars. The other film companies are HeliVideo Productions Llc, Aerial Mob Llc, Pictorvision Inc., RC Pro Productions Consulting Llc, Astraeus Aerial and Snaproll Media Llc. The conditions allowing commercial drone flights that are set to be unveiled on Thursday will be closely watched because they will probably mirror the kinds of restrictions the FAA will propose later this year for small unmanned aircraft, Marshall said. The FAA is scheduled to release the proposed rule by the end of the year, and it will take at least a year before that regulation becomes final.

$82 billion

The Motion Picture Association of America trade group representing the movie industry declined to comment on the announcement, Kate Bedingfield, a spokeswoman, said by email. Drones are forecast to create 100,000 new jobs and $82 billion in economic impact in the first 10 years after the FAA allows flights, according to a forecast by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, or AUVSI, an Arlington, Virginia-based trade group.

So far, the only approvals for commercial drone flights in the US have been for aerial inspections in oil operations in the Arctic regions of Alaska. While the FAA allows hobbyists flying solely for recreation to fly unmanned models, it has only granted approvals for drone-manufacturer test flights and for government agencies such as Customs and Border Protection. Drone-industry groups applauded the anticipated announcement.

“The industry is very supportive of this,” Michael Toscano, president and chief executive officer of AUVSI, said in an interview.

Restive industry

Thursday’s announcement comes at a restive time for drone users, and Toscano said the FAA’s approvals show it is trying to keep up with growing interest in flying unmanned aircraft.

“We have all known that the technology has outpaced the regulation,” he said. “This is one way for the regulatory to catch up.”

The Small UAV Coalition, a Washington-based group, also views the announcement as a

“wonderful first step,”

Michael Drobac, a lobbyist representing the group, said in an interview. UAV stands for unmanned aerial vehicle. The coalition’s members include Google Inc., which like Amazon is developing a delivery drone, and camera-maker GoPro Inc. The only concern the coalition’s members have is that some of the flight rules contained in the filmmakers’ applications weren’t released to the public, Drobac, who works at the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer and Feld Llp, said. Other companies want to ensure they understand how FAA-approved drone operations will work for their own applications, he said.

Lawsuits filed

Hobbyists, who’ve been flying model airplanes for decades, filed a lawsuit against the FAA last month, charging an agency interpretation of unmanned rules was overly restrictive. A group hoping to invest in drone technology, Washington-based UAS America Fund Llc, and universities seeking broader access to unmanned aircraft for research also filed lawsuits against the agency. The first person fined by the FAA for flying an unmanned aircraft recklessly had the charges overturned on 6 March by a judge who said the agency didn’t have legal authority over the craft. The FAA has appealed the decision. Bloomberg

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