Like most industry ‘trends’, drones have had a bit of an ungainly settling-in phase. Attempts to use drones in advertising have, more often than not, been awkward (although not as awkward as the phrase ‘dronevertising’). In June, Australian festival Creative Fuel roped in the likes of Ben Coulson, Ant Keogh and Steve Back to parody the pointless and forced use of drone technology with “The World’s First Crowd Sourced 3D-Printed QR Code Live Streamed Via Go Pro To A Smart Phone Or Tablet Device Drone Delivery Ticket System Project”.
On the production side of the industry, however, drones have been making far more progress. A fraction of the price of helicopters, they’ve brought down the cost of low altitude aerial shots. For action directors like Paul WS Anderson, they’re a nifty way to get the camera right into the thick of a car chase without risking life and limb. Other directors suggest that they’re a more flexible alternative to the Steadicam for smooth, moving shots. They’re not perfect by any means – just ask anyone who’s had to operate a camera drone in anything above a light breeze – and for now filmmakers are limited to shooting with fixed lenses and relatively light cameras like the RED Epic.
In production drones have moved from novelty to legitimate part of the filmmaking arsenal, but they’re yet to become truly commonplace. The fuzzy legal status of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) has created a looming question mark that has made commercial filmmakers think twice taking to the skies. In many countries legislators have been slow to keep up with technological change, while other countries prefer more of a Mad Max lawlessness. Other governments have engaged in frustrating flip-flops and U-turns. It’s an understandably controversial issue; there are huge implications for civil liberties and privacy as well as safety concerns about flying drones in built-up urban areas. Moreover, in many people’s minds the word ‘drones’ is inseparably linked to the word ‘military’ – although the lightweight rotocopters typically used by filmmakers are dramatically different from the Predator stealth drones deployed in war zones. Nonetheless they are an undeniably useful and cost-efficient tool, and arguably privacy issues don’t really apply when using them in a closed-off film set. So if you’re thinking of using a drone in your next shoot, it’s worth doing a bit of research to find out what the situation is in your chosen location.
(NB. Below is not intended as legal advice and is instead a ‘rough guide’. What’s more, drone laws in different countries have proven extremely changeable over the past few years.)
The land of the free? Not if you want to use drones to shoot commercials. “Drones are still not legal in our industry anywhere in the US. They are only legal for hobbyists,” explain the team at Park Pictures. According to the Federal Aviation Authority, flying a drone for commercial purposes in the States is illegal – sucks for film production, sucks for Amazon – but things are set to change. Congress has set a September 2015 deadline for the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to issue regulations for commercial drones. Even when these laws come into place, it looks like operators will face heavy restrictions, medical tests and licenses.
However, delve a little deeper and you soon find that things are not so straightforward – the FAA’s authority on the matter was severely undermined earlier this year. In 2011 filmmaker Raphael Pirker was fined $10,000 for using a drone to capture shots of the University of Virginia for PR firms Lewis Communications. In March a federal judge overturned the ruling; while the FAA has said frequently that commercial drones are categorically illegal, judge Patrick Geraghty found that there were no specific laws preventing commercial UAVs and argued that the FAA’s authority over drones and model aircraft was questionable. In any case it’s a political hot potato, and the FAA are themselves challenging Judge Geraghty’s ruling… so unless you fancy an expensive, three year lawsuit it’s advisable to hang back on any plans to shoot with a drone in the USA until at least Autumn 2015 (although when any regulations might actually come into force is anyone’s guess).
Oh and to make matters even more complicated, individual states are drawing up their own laws about how drones can and can’t be used – though these mainly relate to law enforcement agencies and restrictions on drones for use in surveillance.
According to Lorenzo Benedick from Vagabond Films, the restrictions have had a negative impact on projects that his company has worked on and he believes that if the FAA can integrate commercial drones into US airspace then it will make a huge difference for the US production industry. “We had to kill a beautiful aerial shot for a client out in Pennsylvania, even though we were only shooting over and above their headquarters,” he says.
One potential alternative for those hoping to get their drone on in North America is to head across the border into Canada, where commercial drones have been permitted since 1996. Operators need a licence called an Air Operator Certificate that specifically permits the use of UAVs. What’s more, every commercial drone flight requires a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC) that outlines the geographic area in which the drone is permitted to fly. It takes at least 20 working days for an SFOC to be granted, so producers need to bear that in mind. Consent is also required for commercial images taken of private property.
South Africa has long been a popular destination for commercial shoots but recent changes in the law have been making things difficult for anyone hoping to use drones. In May, flying camera drones were banned and the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) ceased issuing permits. The controversial move was in response to the lack of regulation governing the use of UAVs – the SACAA feels it needs more time to investigate and understand how camera drones are used in order to draw up appropriate rules.
Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com