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FAA approves Hollywood video companies to fly commercial drones

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The FAA is letting companies fly small unmanned aerial vehicles on film sets. The agency announced that it was granting six exemptions to its overall ban on commercial drones and waiving requirements that the craft themselves get airworthiness certificates, because there's no larger threat to US airspace or national security. In return, the companies agree that all operators will hold private pilot certificates, the drones will always stay in the line of sight, and flights will be restricted to a "sterile area" on the film set. That means they'd effectively be short-range and isolated from areas where they could put people or other aircraft at risk — as some hobbyist drones have done in major cities. "We are thoroughly satisfied these operations will not pose a hazard to other aircraft or to people and property on the ground," says FAA administrator Michael Huerta.

These exemptions follow a lobbying push by the Motion Picture Industry of America, which has urged the FAA to allow small drones in filmmaking. The MPAA was responsible for helping six video companies get exemptions: Astraeus Aerial, Aerial MOB, HeliVideo Productions, Pictorvision Inc, RC Pro Productions Consulting/Vortex Aerial, and Snaproll Media. Flying-Cam Inc, known for capturing footage for the James Bond film Skyfall, was asked to provide more information. All these companies specialize in aerial cinematography, which is one of the most promising uses of quadrotors or other small UAVs. They're far cheaper than manned craft, there's little risk to operators, and it doesn't tax the drone's battery or capabilities the way something like Amazon's delivery service might.

Though it's dubiously legal, many photographers and filmmakers are already using drones, something that's periodically resulted in accidents and fines — one such fine led to a lawsuit that could potentially invalidate the FAA's ban. The FAA, meanwhile, has already granted a few limited commercial licenses, and it's funding six test sites that will help inform future laws on pilot licensing, aircraft safety requirements, and ways to integrate drones into existing airspace. Congress has told the agency to come up with official rules for small commercial aircraft by 2015, with rules for larger drones — a more difficult problem — to follow over the next several years.