This is Not a Weapon: Hollywood wants to use drones in filming
Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) have a very militaristic connotation, no? These unmanned flying robots, otherwise known as drones, can be as large as jumbo jets or as small as birds. Drones vary in complexity, some capable of doing tricks straight out of science fiction, or just carrying small loads of supplies. The military has indeed employed drones for a number of reasons: launching attacks, firing missiles, or even disposing bombs.
So it might sound odd to announce that the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is now lobbying the Federal Aviation Administration so that its member studios may use drones of their own. If successful, we may be seeing camera-equipped pilotless drones shooting the overhead chase scenes for Hollywood’s action thrillers in the near future. Such innovative methods are already legally employed in Europe. Some of the opening scenes of “Skyfall” were shot in Turkey using a helicopter drone, and one was also used in “The Smurfs 2.”
Camera-equipped drones, of course, sound awesome. The use of drones in place of manned helicopters could be a very cost-effective way to gain a bird’s-eye view of a scene. Producers’ creativity will be able to soar, if not limited by the flight restrictions of a heavy and incredibly loud piloted aircrafts. Expenses may also be reduced. Currently, rental of a real helicopter runs about $1,700 per hour, while a pilot’s services cost about $1,900 a day. Crew is an another added cost. Commercial drones, on the other hand, can run as low as $119 to $249. Drone prices are only getting cheaper, so the MPPA is ready to get their point across to the FAA.
Now is also an exceptionally appropriate time to make an argument because rulemaking is currently in the works. Come November, the aviation administration will need to deliver its final word on whether small drones may operate commercially. At present, no U.S. regulation addresses commercial drones, and so far the FAA has not shown much leniency towards commercial uses. Already, the FAA has issued a dozen orders to halt the operation of UAS for commercial pursuits, including those performed by aerial photographers, videographers, and journalism schools.
The FAA currently grants exemptions to government agencies: law enforcement, firefighters, search and rescue, border patrol, and the military. Justifying those uses is easy; as those agencies need the flexibility and ease of unmanned aircrafts to save lives. But the irony of the situation is that it’s perfectly legal for someone to take their A.R Drone out for a spin around the neighborhood. Shooting a car chase scene on a private movie set, on the other hand, is breaking the law. Drawing the line between what is and is not legal use around a commercial distinction seems rather arbitrary.
After all, what’s the real fear? Is one man’s tool for storytelling really a weapon of mass destruction in disguise? It’s not that crazy to imagine someone strapping a machine gun to a camera drone. It’s also not far-fetched to think that a company would try to sell military-style drones to civilians. Moreover, permitting the free-flying of even just small camera drones has privacy implications. No one wants a drone whizzing by their 19th floor window while they’re at the office or just hanging out at home. Some privacy advocates have already urged Congress to enact legislation that would set nationwide restrictions on the use of drones.
Hollywood is not the only one with a voice, though. There are plenty of other groups advocating for the right to manufacture, sell, and employ drones in commercial settings. In fact, the TV and movie industry might just be the smallest of players in the long run.
For example, farmers wants to use UAS to monitor the health of their own crops, detect for drought conditions, or more efficiently distribute pesticides. Oil and gas companies want unmanned aircrafts to efficiently monitor oil rigs, pipelines, and other infrastructure. AeroVironmet, Inc. is one such company that makes several military drones and wants to market their 5-pound Qube drone for search-and-rescue and policing missions, as well as for agriculture, monitoring of bridges, and security for public marathons and concerts.
In addition, GoPro is attempting to transition from their strap-on sports cameras to the AirDog, an action-sports drone – for when a camera isn’t enough. In a less expected way, Amazon.com’s founder Jeff Bezos wants to use package-delivering “octocopters,” that can deliver 5-pound payloads within 10 miles of a distribution center.
Google and Facebook also want to put drones to use in getting wireless broadband coverage to underserved populations. In April, Google acquired Titan Aerospace, a high-altitude drone company, which it plans to integrate with Google’s ongoing Project Loon (whereby large balloons are deployed to relay wireless signals).  Facebook had previously been rumored to also be pursuing Titan Aerospace, but they ended up buying solar-powered dronemaker Ascenta instead. In late March, Mark Zuckerberg unveiled Facebook’s Connectivity lab, which will work on the Internet.org project. Both Google and Facebook are advocating the use of commercial drones to bring Internet to everyone.
It’s obvious then, that the movie industry is only one among many others that are realizing how unmanned aircrafts can help their bottom line. The hope is that by lobbying the FAA now, the federal agency will make it easier for both law enforcement and the private sector to use the devices. The challenge for the government will be to deterimine legitimate uses, figure out how to track and monitor the devices, and establish safeguards for privacy abuses and security breaches. An exemption process could certainly benefit industries on a case-by-case basis, but it remains unclear what that process would look like. Undoubtedly, the issue is far more complex than what appears at face value.