Published by on Sept. 10, 2014

SAN DIEGO, U.S. —Aerial MOB is one of a growing number of aerial cinematography companies utilizing drones for filming in commercials, TV shows and feature films. It has done work for shoe companies, car companies, Ivy League universities and even MTV, but a major part of its current focus isn’t on the next high-profile client. It’s on the Federal Aviation Administration.

The company, founded two years ago, is one of seven seeking an exemption to the FAA’s ban on commercial drone flights. In June, the FAA said it was considering the exemptions, which have support from the Motion Picture Association of America.

In its letter to the FAA, the MPAA said drones are safer than helicopters for filmmaking and offer greater creative freedom.

Small unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, “can fly safely at low altitudes that would otherwise be difficult for a manned helicopter,” the MPAA wrote. “Whether through shots winding in between bridges or above rooftops, aerial videography pulls the viewers into the action.”

The association also noted that drones have already been used successfully in other countries for shooting scenes in such movies as “Skyfall” and “The Expendables 3.”

Getting off the ground 

The Aerial MOB team —from left, Treggon Owens, Steve Blizzard, Tony Carmean and Jonathan Montague—after testing some of the equipment in Carlsbad, California.

Tony Carmean, one of Aerial MOB’s four partners, said the process of getting an exemption started almost two years ago.

A partnership with the MPAA, which consists of Hollywood’s six biggest movie studios, allowed for lobbying in Washington, D.C., and meetings with officials from the FAA, the National Transportation Safety Board and Congress.

Carmean, who handles Aerial MOB’s business development and sales, said the company submitted paperwork to the FAA on May 27. That paperwork was then subject to a public comment period before the FAA gave initial feedback. Carmean said the paperwork has since been resubmitted, and the company hopes to have the exemption approved in a few months.

Until then, however, Aerial MOB will continue its nine-month moratorium on accepting fly-for-hire jobs, instead focusing on its product line, Carmean said. It sells quad-, hexa- and octo-copter drone packages for filming, as well as a series of hardware upgrades and technological consulting.

If Aerial MOB were to restart commercial flying before its exemption is approved, it would likely spark even more debate as to the legality of the FAA’s ban.

Carmean said the company has consulted several attorneys, one of whom said the FAA has no jurisdiction for upholding a ban.

Carmean cited the March ruling on the case of Raphael Pirker, a videographer whose $10,000 fine for reckless flying was dismissed when an NTSB administrative law judge determined the FAA has no authority over small, unmanned aircraft.

The FAA is appealing the ruling, but Carmean cautioned that the verdict doesn’t mean Aerial MOB can take to the skies.

“At the end of the day, small companies like us can’t risk messing around with the FAA,” he said.

Movie magic

Using drones for aerial filming has many positives, Carmean said.

Traditionally, aerial camera angles can be shot using dollies, jibs, cable cams or full-size helicopters. A drone, he said, can combine all these shot types into one vehicle.

One of the seven companies seeking an exemption, Flying Cam, won a Scientific and Engineering Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in February for its Flying-Cam 3.0 SARAH Unmanned Aircraft System.

HoverCam, a company not seeking an exemption, was recognized with a Technical Achievement Award for development of its Helicam system—a turbine-engine, radio-controlled miniature helicopter that supports film and digital cinema cameras.

Overall, Carmean said, drones save time and money, all while expanding the efficiency and creative potential of filmmaking.

Safety could be enhanced by removing the human element from potentially dangerous filming situations. And as the MPAA noted in its comments to the FAA, small drones operate without flammable fuel, unlike helicopters.

Decades of fatal accidents have marred movie productions, from a 1930 incident where two camera planes collided in midair and killed 10, including the director, to a 2012 helicopter accident in which two filmmakers who were location scouting for James Cameron lost their lives.

In February, during filming for the movie “Midnight Rider,” camera assistant Sarah Jones was struck and killed by a train when the crew attempted to film on an active railroad trestle outside Savannah, Georgia. Two of the filmmakers were charged with involuntary manslaughter.

Carmean said the potential drawbacks of using drones for filmmaking include crashes, injuries or deaths, if such technology falls into the wrong hands.

“The technology is there, but the FAA has to get their hands around how they’re going to implement it, because it could be a madhouse,” he said.

In addition, he is concerned by predictions that thousands of drones could be flying soon.

“That’s pretty scary when you think about all these [unmanned aircraft systems] flying through the air,” he said. “How do you know the person flying it is competent? How do you know he knows what he’s doing?”

The provisions for the seven exemptions being considered by the FAA are numerous, and include maintaining liability insurance, having pilots maintain a visual line of sight of their aircraft at all times, and creating restricted areas for aircraft operation that prohibit flying less than 50 feet over active railroads, roadways, highways or gatherings of people. The aircraft may not operate above 400 feet or in restricted airspace without prior approval from an air traffic controller.

The exemptions are limited to two years.

Overall, Carmean said, approving commercial use of drones for filmmaking is “a no-brainer.” The industry provides controlled set environments and the ability to follow production rules, including altitude restrictions, he said.

In three to five years, he expects to see full integration of unmanned aircraft systems for commercial purposes. For now, though, the FAA is sticking with a calculated approach as the seven companies wait on their exemption requests, he said.

“It’s precedent-setting,” he said of the exemptions. “It’s never been done.”