Matt Ragan loves telling directors how his drone can follow a car down the street at eye level in a tight shot, like a dolly without rails, then rise into the air like a crane, and soar into the sky like a helicopter.

“That seamless transition is something they really eat up,” says Ragan, an entrepreneur who launched Birds Eye of Big Sky, a company that provided drones to scout for “The Revenant,” among other films.

But as versatile as drones are, they have drawbacks. Small remote-controlled aircraft can be hard to handle and are sometimes flown carelessly — as exemplified by a drone’s close call with a Lufthansa jet near LAX in March.

“A lot of people don’t play by the rules,” says location manager Mike Fantasia. “They fly a drone around, take some footage and don’t get permits.”

The major studios have not been blind to the issue. Last year, they began requiring that drone pilots have certification from the FAA through its newly created Section 333 unmanned aircraft systems authorization program.

“Every single director who doesn’t fly a drone asks for things the drone cannot do or shouldn’t do, legally and technically.”
Matt Ragan, drone operator

But that hasn’t necessarily resolved safety problems, according to Eric Bergez, VP for Swedish drone manufacturer Intuitive Aerial, who notes that many producers don’t care “even if you show up with a toy or some ‘Frankendrone’ you built in your garage. All that matters is you can fly.”

Intuitive’s Aerigon drone has 12 rotors and the power and redundancy to stay aloft with a 20-pound camera payload, even if it loses power in two motors. Additionally, the landing system acts as a roll cage, protecting its expensive cargo in the event of a crash.

“However, we can’t engineer-out stupid,” Bergez allows. “If a pilot puts on an old battery, it’s going to fall out of the sky. Battery maintenance is an industrywide issue.”

With the heavy payloads of pro cameras, a drone battery is good for only 10 to 15 minutes of flight time, which can frustrate a director who wants to send the craft on a mile-long round trip.

“Every single director who doesn’t fly a drone asks for things the drone cannot do or shouldn’t do, legally and technically,” Ragan says.

According to FAA rules, drones can fly no higher than 400 feet and must remain visible to the unaided eye (e.g., no binoculars). Additionally, only essential production personnel are allowed within 200 feet of the drone, which can be a problem if you’re shooting on a studio lot or a city street.

“A lot of times, [drone shots] fall out [of a production] because of the cost, especially in urban areas,” Fantasia says.

Flying by the Rules
FAA regulations and fuel capacity are among the factors governing drone use.
15 Approximate
minutes of flight time available for a drone carrying heavy pro cameras
400 Maximum drone altitude allowed by the Federal Aviation Administration
200 Distance that essential production workers must keep between themselves and a drone.

On a recent Atlanta-based production, Fantasia found he’d have to pay people $500 each to vacate their houses for a drone shot. “Between the police and clearing the houses, it was going to be a $100,000 day,” he says.

In the end, using drone specialists Team5, they were able to work with the FAA and find a way to get the shot without breaking the bank.

What makes drones so compelling are the priceless shots they can capture. For example, during production of “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” supervising location manager Ilt Jones was able to secure permission to fly a drone through the center archway of the central government building in Hong Kong.

“Overall, a manned helicopter is way more versatile because you can fly it faster, further, higher with more stability,” he says, but a chopper “could never have achieved that Hong Kong shot.”