It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! … It’s a DRONE!

We recently caught up with our On The Hill Summit coordinator, Russell Imrie, after a congressional hearing to discuss Congress’ current stance and future concerns regarding the federal regulation of drone activity. According to Imrie, legislators are angry and hyper-concerned about the safety of drones flying over restricted areas, especially about near-misses with passenger aircrafts. The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing heard that about one million UAVs (drones) are expected to be in the air by January 2016. The FAA is overwhelmed by these numbers. Everyone is frustrated trying to find a happy medium between filming rights and safety precautions. There seems to be no easy solution in sight.

Since the February 2015 DCIFF On the Hill Summit, there has been little to no change to the drone dilemma, although the number of exemptions to FAA regulations granted allowing people to use drones has soared from 8 to 1,891: that is 1,883 in 7 months.  All of these “333 Exemptions” derive from a rule that was supposed to be finalized by September 2015 but is still non-existent. According to a recent FAA update, the ruling should be completed by Fall 2016. Meanwhile, the federal government has just announced that all recreational drones must be registered… while the FAA toils away at its rules.

How will this impact the film industry? Aerial footage is an essential point-of-view in so many films, but the process of getting a cameraman in the air on a helicopter or airplane can be extremely expensive and not independent-film-friendly. Unmanned cameras such as drones seem like a natural alternative for low-budget filmmaking, but is it really legal? Yes, and no. There are currently 243 film companies that can legally film using drone cameras in the United States. Although they may have federal permission, the laws are very ambiguous and highly regulated by height restrictions, communication with airport control towers and visibility of the drone. This troubling grey area, coupled with overly complicated regulations, often discourages filmmakers from obtaining a proper license. Imrie recommends filmmakers take a close look at the Federal Aviation Administration and consider partnering with an already approved production company that has been granted the 333 waiver. Partnering with a pre-approved company can significantly lower your risk of flying in the wrong place at the wrong time and jeopardizing your film.

Imrie concludes that, unfortunately, regulations are going to be a mess for a long time and primarily dealt with by complaints and court rulings. Aerial shots don’t need to be eliminated from low-budget films due to cost, but it is important to be up to date on the current regulations to protect yourself and your film.

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