Directing With Drones: MPAA Wins FAA Exemptions for Filmmakers

Thanks, in part, to a push by the Motion Picture Association of America, a handful of film production crews will be able to use drones to get a perfect shot. The success highlights a willingness by studios to follow some new rules.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is starting to let down its guard on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, and industry groups are helping to make their use possible.

Last week, the National Association of Realtors secured a role in finalizing rules on drone use in the real estate industry, but the biggest remote-controlled news of the week may have come courtesy of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which got the agency to make an exception for using the devices in Hollywood film productions. The approval marks the first time that FAA has allowed drones to be used for commercial purposes in the U.S.

Six of the seven filmmakers who petitioned the FAA in May with the trade group’s support will be allowed to film with the devices.

“I’ve determined that using unmanned aircraft for this purpose does not pose a risk to national airspace users,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a news conference, according to Deadline Hollywood.

The approval comes with regulations, though: The drones can fly at a height of only 400 feet and must be operated by certified pilots, filmmakers have to notify the agency ahead of time, and the devices cannot be used at night (a restriction that may be lifted later on).

In comments on the decision, MPAA’s chairman and CEO, former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), noted filmmakers have had to shoot overseas to use drones in previous productions.

“Today’s announcement is a victory for audiences everywhere, as it gives filmmakers yet another way to push creative boundaries and create the kinds of scenes and shots we could only imagine just a few years ago,” Dodd said in a statement [PDF]. “Our industry has a history of successfully using this innovative technology overseas—making movies like ‘Skyfall’ and ‘Transformers: Age of Extinction,’ to name a couple—and we are proud to now be on the leading edge of its safe commercial use here at home.”

Rules of the Air

In the past, some filmmakers, including production crews that worked on  The Wolf of Wall Street, ignored the prohibition on drone use. The exceptions announced this week provide some needed clarity and make sense for an industry where production work occurs under tightly controlled circumstances, according to one of the firms that won approval last week.

“Most studio productions take place on closed sites with an established perimeter, ensuring that personnel on those sites are affiliated with the production and are aware of inbound aircraft,” Aerial Mob’s Tony Carmean told Forbes.

FAA’s move suggests a path forward for other industries looking to use UAVs for commercial purposes. And the list is long, notes The New York Times: The news media, online retailers, and agriculture (among others) want a place in the sky.

"Skyfall," released in 2012, used drones in filming—but only overseas. (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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