Lights, Camera, Drones..? FAA Eases Drone Restrictions With Filmmakers

September 29, 2014

Whispers began floating around this week that the FCC will begin allowing filmmakers to operate drones in on movie sets. This will be the second set of exceptions made by the FAA for commercial drone use, the first being a pair a permits leased to companies for use in remote areas of Alaska, and making this release the first allowed in populated areas.
Lifting the ban will bring many filmmakers back to the States, after having to go overseas to film scenes in countries which allow such use. Using drones allows filmmakers to film difficult scenes, like those which are too low for helicopters and too high for cranes. The drones will likely weigh less than 55 pounds, fly no more than 57 m.p.h., and no higher than 400 feet.
Surprisingly, the FAA is much more worried about private companies who operate drones professionally than they are with a bored private citizen who decides to try his hand at flying a 50 pound unmanned aircraft. Currently, the FAA allows private citizens to fly drones, without government permission, if they stay below 400 feet and remain 3 miles away from airports, but explicitly bars business or commercial use.

“Martha Stewart bragged that she uses her drone for spying on party guests”

This allows any Joe Schmoe, a case of beer deep into an afternoon, to bust out the ole’ drone and fly that heavy piece of hardware all over town. The private citizen may have needs that warrant the need of a drone. Perhaps, looking to see where your child is playing the neighborhood, or checking out the traffic before you leave for work? Recently, during an appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers, Martha Stewart bragged that she uses her drone for spying on party guests. Granted, these private uses are likely uncommon, and on a small scale, but if you need a license to fish, shouldn’t you need one to buzz around residential neighborhoods?
Despite the lack of response from the FAA, other national agencies are becoming more restrictive when it comes to private drone use. In June 2014 the National Park Service banned “unmanned aircrafts”, colloquially “drones”, after an incident with a visitor flying over a crowd at Mt. Rushmore. This, however, did not seem to stop a Dutch man who flew a drone into a hot spring at Yellowstone National Park. The man plead guilty in federal court on Tuesday, and was ordered to pay $3,245 in fines and restitution.

“Our own state of North Carolina make[s] provisions for ‘newsgathering, newsworthy events, or events or places to which the general public is invited’ “

In the absence of federal regulation, many states have begun enacting their own rules regarding private use of drones. However, states seem to be more interested in privacy interests than safety. Criminal trespass laws in Tennessee were changed to include drones flying over private property below navigable airspace. The Texas Privacy Act allows drones to fly and capture images in certain circumstances, like of people on “public real property” or of real property within 25 miles of the border with the explicit consent of the owners of the property. Our own state of North Carolina prohibits photographing a person via drone with the purpose of disseminating the image without their consent. North Carolina’s law does, however, make provisions for “newsgathering, newsworthy events, or events or places to which the general public is invited.”
Whether you’re a person who’d like to see policy air on the side of privacy, or someone who just can’t for Amazon to start delivering packages within 20 minutes, one thing is certain. Both sides will have to make a few concessions to make this a safe, and predictable tool for our changing world.