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Fri May 16, 2014

Are Filmmakers Using Drones Illegally? Looks Like It

Originally published on Tue May 20, 2014 10:11 am

It is illegal in the U.S. to operate a drone for cash. That's the position of the Federal Aviation Administration — which is in charge of protecting air space. But at least one industry has decided that it doesn't care and it's going to put drones to work anyway: the film industry.

Drone Startups Hit Hollywood

It's 4:45 a.m. in Southern California, but Jeff Blank is used to starting this early. "Directors are chasing the sunrise shot," he says, "and the winds are pretty calm this time of day."

Blank and his cousin Andrew Petersen run a family business called Drone Dudes, based in Los Angeles. Companies pay them to fly drones with video cameras into the air, to get footage for movies and commercials. It's a hot new service in the world of aerial cinematography.

Petersen recaps their very busy week, which includes jobs for an independent filmmaker and Kawasaki, and a trip to Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats for a Hyundai commercial. "I'm bringing my bike so I can ride between shoots," he says.

Today's client is Anaheim, Calif.-based Pacific Sunwear, or PacSun, the clothing store that's in a lot of malls. The film crew heads out to a big white van labeled Drone Dudes in big black letters. They load their gear and take off for the film set.

On Set

This drone-for-hire operation is illegal according to federal regulators, who say that with very few exceptions, drones cannot be used for business until guidelines are in place for air safety and privacy. The FAA even issues a myth-buster fact sheet to debunk any misconceptions.

But drones are so cheap and easy to use, the filmmakers won't wait. Drone Dudes charges as little as $3,000 a day for its services.

Today's commercial is set in Zaca Lake, a set of lush green hills with thick fog rolling in against the horizon.

Using a remote control, Petersen gives the command to start. With a camera strapped inside, the quadcopter drone zooms up into the air, zips through trees, dives down to the ground and zooms back up again. It's chasing a model who's supposed to be looking good, riding a motorcycle. These quick maneuvers can happen because of big technological leaps in sensors that self-stabilize to fix the camera lens and drone's position.

Phillip Lopez is the director for the shoot. After each take, he tells the drone operators to show off what the drone can do and give the model a haircut, so to speak. "I just really want to push the levels here, get as close as possible," Lopez says.

Clifford Lidell with PacSun says it's his first time hiring a drone. He could have used a helicopter, but that takes more money, permits and gasoline — and it makes more noise.

He says the only downside with a drone is it's banned in national and state parks. The fines there "are just ridiculous, so we actually had to find private property where you kind of dance around this little gray area that's being controlled right now by what seems like blanket legislation," Lidell says.

An Underground Operation

Hollywood wants to use drones. But if you ask for a permit, you'll get denied. So people don't ask and don't tell.

"Whatever they're doing is between themselves and their client, and it's more of an underground operation now, I think," says Mark Bolanos, who works on aerial safety for the Los Angeles Police Department.

Federal regulators recently tried to fine a company in Virginia for using a drone. A federal judge struck down the $10,000 fine. As soon as it happened, industry lawyers jumped on the phone with the LAPD — to figure out whether commercial drones were suddenly legal.

"I think it happened that day, or the day after. It was almost instantaneous," Bolanos says.

The department decided it's not legal yet and federal regulators get to have the last word. But Bolanos has a tinge of sympathy for all the filmmakers who want drones.

"It's a viable tool for what they do," he says. "They want to comply with the law. I think most people want to do the right thing."

While we all want great films, the FAA says it has to think about our safety first.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This use of drones for civilian purposes is on the rise. We say this even though it is illegal in the United States to operate a drone for commercial purposes. That is the position of the Federal Aviation Administration, which is in charge of protecting U.S. airspace. The film industry has decided to put drones to work anyway. NPR's Aarti Shahani reports.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: It's 4:45 a.m. in Southern California.

JEFF BLANK: This is pretty normal for us. It's pretty normal. People and directors are chasing the sunrise shot.

SHAHANI: Meet drone operator, Jeff Blank and his cousin Andrew Peterson. They recap their very busy week.

BLANK: We got to do a Kawasaki job and then we're gearing up for a feature film tomorrow in L.A. and then taking off to Utah for a little filming on the Bonneville Salt Flats.

ANDREW PETERSON: For Hyundai, yeah.

BLANK: Yeah, with Hyundai.

SHAHANI: These guys Blank run a family business called Drone Dudes. Companies pay them to fly drones with video cameras into the air to get footage for movies and commercials. It's a hot new service in the world of aerial cinematography. Right now, we're in the lobby of a quaint little inn off the highway. Today's clients, Pacific Sunwear, the clothing store that's in a lot of malls just walked in.

BLANK: Clifford? How's it going? Jeff.

SHAHANI: The film crew heads out to a big white van with the words Drone Dudes stenciled in big black letters. They load their gear and take off for the film set. This drone-for-hire operation is illegal, according to federal regulators who say that with very few exceptions, drones cannot be used for business until guidelines are in place for air safety and privacy.

But drones are so cheap and easy to use, the filmmakers won't wait.

BLANK: Stop, stop, stop, good, good, good, good. Money.

SHAHANI: The director for today's commercial is Phillip Lopez. He tells the Drone Dudes where to move their drone through these massive rolling hills and thick fog. The drone's remote control give the command to start. With a camera strapped inside, the drone zooms up into the air, zips through trees, dives down to the ground and zooms back up again.

It's chasing a model on a motorcycle who's supposed to be looking good and these quick maneuvers can happen because of big leaps in sensors that self-stabilize to fix the camera lens and copter position. Rivera is ready for take two. He tells the Drone Dudes to show off, give the model a haircut, so to speak.

PHILLIP LOPEZ: Whatever it is that gets us as close as possible, don't care. I just really want to push the levels here and as close as possible.

SHAHANI: Clifford Liddel with PacSun says it's his first time hiring a drone. He could have used a helicopter, but that takes more money, permits, gasoline, and it makes more noise. The only downside with a drone is it's banned in national and state parks. Try to use one there and...

CLIFFORD LIDDEL: The fines are just ridiculous. We actually had to find private property where you kind of dance around this little gray area that's being controlled right now by what seems like blanket legislation.

MARK BOLANOS: Whatever they're doing is between themselves and their client.

SHAHANI: Officer Mark Bolanos is with the Los Angeles police department.

BOLANOS: And it's more of an underground operation now I think.

SHAHANI: Hollywood wants to use drones, but if you ask for a permit, you'll get denied. So people don't ask and don't tell. Federal regulators recently tried to fine a company in another state for using a drone. The transportation court struck down the $10,000 fine. And as soon it happened, Bolanos says, industry lawyers jumped on the phone with the LAPD to figure out if commercial drones were suddenly legal.

BOLANOS: I think it happened that day, or the day after. It was almost instantaneous.

SHAHANI: LAPD decided it's not legal yet and federal regulators get to have the last word. But Officer Bolanos has a tinge of sympathy for all the filmmakers who want drones.

BOLANOS: It's a viable tool for what they do. They want to comply with the law. I think most people want to do the right thing.

SHAHANI: So they want to comply with the law, but right now, the law's not convenient so they're not complying with it.

BOLANOS: That's probably a fair summary, yes.

SHAHANI: While we all want great films, the Federal Aviation Administration says it has to think about our safety first. Aarti Shahani, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.