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As Drone Use Takes Off on Film Sets, Concerns for Safety Arise

When a wayward drone recently crashed into the White House lawn, it set off a media frenzy of speculation about a future of skies filled with wild, out-of-control unmanned aircraft.

On film sets, though, drones are steadily gaining altitude — with what aerial companies say are a tight set of controls over their use.

The FAA decided in September to allow aerial production companies to use drones on closed, outdoor filming locations, and the technology is now used in more than a dozen productions, including CBS’ “The Mentalist” and a number of commercials, with the expectation that their use will gain greater acceptance in the months ahead.

“We have just scratched the surface,” says Tony Carmean of Aerial Mob, which has flown the devices on 11 productions since the FAA’s decision.

An industrywide safety committee of studios and labor officials is drawing up a set of guidelines for drones, with a draft expected soon. Aerial Mob has met with all the major studios, which Carmean said want to get their own safety protocols in place before accelerating the use of the technology.

There has been just one incident involving a drone since the FAA approval: In December, one operated by Pictorvision flew off course during the shooting of a commercial. According to the FAA, the operator said that after they lost contact with the drone, it automatically initiated “lost link” procedures and started returning to the location but struck “rising terrain” on the way back. It was located, with “no damage to people or property,” the FAA said.

The FAA’s guidelines prohibit drones from going above 400 feet, and the device must be within the sight line of an operator who has a private pilot license. Productions have to give the FAA notice of their use, and drones may not be operated at night.

Even with those restrictions, some FAA safety inspectors raised objections to the regulator’s September decision, according to a Washington Post report. At the same time, the drone industry launched a push to emphasize safety, whether for recreational or professional use, via a campaign called Know Before You Fly — an effort that’s also supported by the MPAA.

Michael Chambliss, business rep for the Intl. Cinematographers Guild, said that among the issues studios are studying is what guidelines should exist for the use of drones in enclosed spaces, like a soundstage, that are outside FAA regulations. The movie “Mall Cop 2,” for instance, made extensive use of drones in interior scenes.

“The feedback from the studios is that every director wants to use the technology, and they are trying to figure out how to say yes,” Chambliss said.

A more difficult question is whether the FAA will approve the use of drones for other types of production, like newsgathering, which raise issues of privacy and flight beyond a controlled set. Last week, CNN announced it was conducting research along with the FAA into the use of drones in reporting.

While a compelling case can be made for the safety of drones in production vs. a helicopter, Chambliss and others are adamant that manned aircraft will not be phased out in favor of the unmanned variety.

Rather, he says, drones are a bridge between ground shooting and helicopter shooting. Drone cameras can move gently through the doors of a house and down through the streets of a neighborhood, but a high-speed car chase, for instance, would leave them in the dust.

Chambliss puts drones in the same category as the handheld camera and the Steadicam, which gave filmmakers “new ways of telling stories.”

“It is really just a different kind of shot,” he said.

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