Drone industry seeks box-office breakthrough

Drone industry seeks box-office breakthrough
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The drone industry is ready for its close-up.

Advocates for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are buzzing about the government’s decision to allow major Hollywood studios to use them for footage — a technique that has already been used to dazzling effect in blockbusters “Skyfall” and “Harry Potter.”

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Industry insiders are hopeful that the movie magic the drones create would ease public fears and lead to wider adoption of the technology.

“It’s a huge milestone for the industry,” said Mario Mairena, a top lobbyist at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an industry trade group.

“It paves the way for America to be competitive in the way of UAS and perhaps bring us on par in the near future with our European counterparts,” he said. “As more exemptions are granted, it will give Americans an idea of how beneficial and useful these platforms are for everyday society.”

The Federal Aviation Administration  last week granted exemptions that will allow six film companies to mount cameras on drones and shoot footage, giving directors another option for shots from the skies besides cranes and helicopters.

The exemptions for Hollywood might only be the beginning.

The FAA is working on draft regulations that will allow companies to fly drones weighing less than 55 pounds. By law, those regulations are supposed to be finalized in September 2015, but many industry experts expect them to be delayed.

In the meantime, the FAA is giving flight to the nascent industry by providing exemptions to existing rules that ban most commercial uses of drones. Applicants have to outline a safety plan and prove that they can control the machines.

Companies and industries have filed at least 40 petitions for the drone exemption already, and that number is likely to increase.

“I would expect there to be double that number in the next few months,” said John McGraw, an aviation industry consultant and former FAA deputy director.

Amazon is the highest-profile company to seek an exemption. The online sales giant has detailed plans to deliver books, clothing and other merchandise by drone, instead of by sending packages through the mail.

Experts said using drones for delivery is still a long way off, but predicted Amazon could get approval to do testing.

Other companies have proposed using unmanned aircraft to monitor power lines, oil pipelines and environmental areas, which would take advantage of the technology’s potential for cheap, remote surveillance.

While many companies could soon be granted an exemption from the FAA’s rules, their waivers wouldn’t be a license to fly an unmanned aircraft anywhere they please.

Any exemption from the FAA comes with strict conditions.

Under the exemption granted to the film studios, drones can only fly up to 400 feet and must be kept within sight of the person operating the machine.

The studios will also have to apply for new certificates from the FAA every time they fly a drone in a new location — something that happens frequently when shooting TV shows and movies.

“We’re not going to all of a sudden start seeing commercial operations in our neighborhoods as much,” said Tim Adelman, a lawyer at LeClairRyan.

The new exemptions could make more companies more aware of the fact that they need to get some type of FAA approval before flying their drones, or else run afoul of federal regulators.

“The impact is going to be that you will now have a safe, regulated industry using UAS, and the sort of Wild West mentality of some of the folks that are buying these and using them will be diminished,” said McGraw, the former FAA official.

In the long run, the FAA’s embrace of drones could encourage companies to stay in the United States instead of relocating to other countries to use or experiment with the technology.

Up to now, Hollywood studios had been taking advantage of other nations’ more lenient prohibitions on drones to film scenes.

Google, similarly, recently announced that it has launched experiments with drones to compete with Amazon at delivering goods. Because of restrictions in the U.S., the service is being tested in rural Australia.

“I know of countless other companies that have effectively fled the United States in order to develop and use the technology in a place where governments are more receptive,” said Brendan Schulman, the head of law firm Kramer Levin’s UAS practice. He has criticized the FAA's current approach.

Schulman successfully argued a case earlier this year claiming that the FAA’s restrictions currently do not apply to drones. The agency has appealed the decision, but if it is upheld, the FAA would not be able to prevent companies from using the aircraft for commercial purposes.

The agency’s requirement that companies get an exemption from existing rules is a “much more conservative approach than is necessary for these kinds of devices,” Schulman told The Hill.