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High Altitude, Higher Expectations: The Deal with Drone Cinematography

As alluring as the idea of shooting video from a flying platform may be, drone videographers are caught in the middle of a legal morass that has yet to be resolved.

The Drone Wars are coming! Flying drones—also known by the prosaic names “unmanned aerial vehicles” (UAVs) and “unmanned aircraft systems” (UASs)—are all over the media, buzzing the Eiffel tower, hovering over the White House and peeking into backyard sun decks.

The New York City Drone Film Festival took place on March 7 in Manhattan with headline sponsor NBC News, which recently shot some drone video of a frozen Niagara Falls. Next month’s NAB Show will feature more than 30 sessions dealing with drones, and clouds of UAVs from 22 exhibitors will be swarming in the Aerial Robotics and Drone Pavilion on the upper floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center’s South Hall.

Some have speculated that drones will soon be used in the delivery of products purchased online from vendors such as Google and Amazon, though that’s unlikely. What is more likely is that drones will become the overhead camera platform of choice for sports coverage. As alluring as the idea of shooting video from a flying platform may be, however, drone videographers are caught in the middle of a legal morass that has yet to be resolved.

Team BlackSheep shot aerial footage of the capsized cruise ship Costa Concordia in 2012.

Reinhart “Rayteam” Peschke owns Rayteam Camera Rental in Los Angeles, the first facility to rent video camera-equipped drones to the Hollywood community. As a DP himself, Peschke first mounted a GoPro HERO camera on a four-rotor DJI drone three years ago and began training a cadre of videographers to fly the skittish devices. Peschke explains that those operators are actually called “pilots” in the drone vernacular, even though they are ultimately functioning as videographers.

“I always was a big fan of aerial photography,” Peschke says, “but the advent of drones has opened up a whole new world of possibilities. We can provide a drone holding a GoPro camera for about $285 per day including ground monitor. As cameras and their mounts have improved, bringing home usably steady overhead shots has become highly practical.”

Today, drones-for-video come in a bewildering variety of configurations and capabilities. Dozens of drone manufacturers have cropped up whose products have applications in fields including agriculture, energy, real estate, civil engineering, law enforcement and public safety, as well as the consumer/hobbyist market.

Reinhart Peshke

The most popular professional-grade camera drones are branded DJI and are manufactured by the Chinese company SZ DJI Technology Co. Fully decked out, they include a proportional flight control system, remotely guided camera gimbal, GPS positioning system, onboard batteries and an air-to-ground video link whose quality can range from low-resolution proxies to full-bandwidth 1080p images sent via RF transmitter/receiver technology like Sky Link from Amimon.

Learning how to fly these aerial platforms can take up to a year of practice, or about 250 hours of flight time. Ray Peschke says that one of his pilots, Mark Linthicum, has become possibly the best DJI drone operator in the business.

Linthicum has shot drone video for television shows including Comedy Central’s Tosh.0, commercials including Starbucks’ Fizzio, and many music videos. He explains that the development of gimbaled camera mounts has raised the quality of drone video to new levels.

“These are so light and flexible that they can compensate for any movement of the drone,” Linthicum says, “but they are really designed for relatively small cameras like the GoPro, which has its own onboard recorder, although it sends a low-res proxy of the shots back to the ground over a Wi-Fi link. DJI also pioneered the GPS technology that returns the drone to its launch area if it loses contact control from its operator.”

Another of Rayteam’s pilots, Dante DiRusso, who flies Tarot drones as well as some that he builds for his own company, Sky Spaghetti, has been working with RC vehicles since he was 8 years old. DiRusso’s drones can lift larger production cameras like the 4K Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH4 or the Sony Alpha NEX-6.

From a spot Mark Linthicum shot for Starbucks.

“These let me provide services to mainstream productions that require higher-resolution images,” DiRusso says. “If you are building your own flying platforms, the sky is literally the limit.”

One of the most enthusiastic sources for drone video services is a Los Angeles production collective called Drone Dudes, founded by director Andrew H. Petersen.

“We specialize in film shoots for music videos, indie features and interactive art displays,” says Drone Dudes executive producer Matt Feige. “We are scheduled to participate in the drones pavilion at NAB to take aerial shots, but we are going to be utilizing a tethered 25-foot helium blimp for the show.”

A blimp? That brings us into the murkiness surrounding the legality of flying commercial drones in congested areas and within 5 miles of an airport.

In October 2011, drone pilot Raphael “Trappy” Pirker, a Swiss citizen, made a promotional video for the University of Virginia, and in 2013, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration wanted to fine him $10,000 for violating its 2007 policy banning the commercial use of model aircraft.

Los Angeles landmark Felix Chevrolet, by Dante DiRusso.

Part of that policy involved requiring a drone operator to have a private pilot’s license—a stipulation that is out of the reach of most videographers. After three years of legal wrangling and appeals with the assistance of Brendan Schulman of the law firm Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP, Pirker settled with the FAA for $1,100 on Jan. 22, 2015.

Today, Raphael Pirker runs a company based in Hong Kong called TBS Avionics. The company manufactures drones for aerial photography and drone racing under the banner Team BlackSheep.

“The settlement brings closure to the case,” Raphael says. “It underlines the discontent of the drone industry with the current set of regulations and signals to the FAA that we are prepared to fight for more sensible ones.”

In the United States, the FAA must specifically authorize the use of drones for all commercial (not hobby or recreational) purposes. Until the finalization of the Small UAS Rule, the FAA is granting case-by-case authorization for certain unmanned aircraft to perform commercial operations.

For this shoot, the Drone Dudes team mounted a RED Dragon on an octocopter.

Since late 2014, the FAA has allowed expanded commercial use of UAS operations by granting regulatory exemptions to companies in many fields, including film and television production. On Sept. 25, 2014, the first six commercial film and television production companies received exemptions from the FAA: Astraeus Aerial, Aerial MOB, HeliVideo Productions, Pictorvision, RC Pro Productions Consulting (dba Vortex Aerial) and Snaproll Media. Other production companies have been granted exemptions since the first ruling, including Flying Cam, AeroCine, Team 5, Shotover Camera Systems, Helinet Aviation Services, Alan D. Purwin, Picture Factory and Video Solutions.

But what about the rest of us wannabe sky pilots? Ian Gregor, public affairs manager of the FAA’s Pacific Division, was helpful in explaining the current situation. “In a nutshell, the FAA authorizes UAS operations that are not for hobby or recreation on a case-by-case basis. A flight that is not for hobby or recreation requires a certified aircraft, a licensed pilot and operating approval.”

Gregor notes that the FAA is not pursuing mass arrests of drone pilots. “The FAA is not a prosecutorial agency,” he says. “It promotes voluntary compliance by educating individual UAS operators about how they can operate safely under current regulations and laws. The FAA also has a number of enforcement tools available to address unauthorized use of UAS, including warning notices, letters of correction and civil penalties.”

Raphael “Trappy” Pirker runs the Hong Kong company TBS Avionics, which manufactures drones under the banner Team BlackSheep.

In 2014 the FAA opened six test sites (in North Dakota, Texas, Alaska, Nevada, New York and Virginia) to perform UAS research. The FAA is working with the test sites to guide their research programs to help the FAA safely integrate UAS into the national airspace over the next several years. UASs being tested at these locations include Draganflyer X4ES, Aeryon Scout, Insitu ScanEagle, PrecisionHawk Lancaster Platform, Smart Road Flyer, eSPAARO, Aeryon Sky Ranger, MANTRA2, Sig Rascal and AVID EDF-8.

On Feb. 23, 2015, the FAA announced the Small UAS Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to specify permanent regulations for commercial use of unmanned aircraft systems under 55 lb. The proposed rules limit commercial drone flights to an altitude of 500 feet and only during daytime hours. According to the proposal, drones must remain in sight of the operator and may not be flown over people or near airports. The FAA has opened a 60-day public comment period that nominally ends on April 24, 2015, but is likely to be extended given the widespread interest in future drone regulations.

Now it is time for all of us to take action. You can send comments identified by docket number FAA-2015-0150 via the FAA’s web site or e-mail