Look, drones are cool, okay? By now, you’ve probably grown tired of them constantly popping up in the news, or of Terry from accounting going on and on about them, but they’re cool. They are.
Especially with recent advancements in camera technology, companies have been able to produce smaller versions in the consumer market that are capable of capturing gorgeous aerial footage; something that was only possible via a plane or helicopter in the past.
Unlike a helicopter, however, they can be incredibly easy to operate. Industry leader DJI’s newest drones can return and land automatically, follow GPS paths, rotate around determined focal points and more, all while transmitting wireless HD footage to a screen on your remote. You can practically turn the thing on and take a nap.
Much like the DSLR movement, the relative affordability and accessibility has allowed a much larger pool of small-budget creators to throw their hat in the ring. While there are positives to this, it also means that any idiot with hands and some pocket change can get an unmanned aircraft into the sky. It is estimated that 700,000 drones will be sold this year alone, and many of those operators will be, in a word, newbs.
This is why we can’t have nice things, Enrique Iglesias.
To combat our human ineptitude, and perhaps in part to take advantage of an enormous cash-cow, the government has taken steps to regulate the skies. Sort of.
The main problem is that the very idea of consumer drones and amateur operators is so new, the legislation hasn’t caught up to it yet. The FAA’s solution for the time being is to apply existing laws that were originally made for model planes or even manned aircraft. So for recreation, you can only fly up to 400 feet and keep your drone within your sight. More importantly, for commercial video footage, it means that to legally fly a drone the size of a basketball, you’ll need to spend about $10k and get a pilot’s license, which requires solo flights in a biplane. Which for some reason, isn’t going over very well. A good example of the absurdity of it all is this guy, who found that taking hot air balloon lessons was his cheapest and easiest legal option (ain’t nobody got time for that).
It’s no secret that lots of people are just breaking the law and that many more are being very liberal with their bending of it. I did some poking around to see how bendy some videographers were being, and what options exist to at least attempt to comply. A common solution was applying for something called Section 333, which is an exemption to operate commercially granted by the FAA. The problem here is that there are thousands of petitions on file, and the government isn’t exactly flying through them. It can take months to even get a reply, and waiting that long is not feasible for videographers running a business. Some drone operators are choosing to forego the waiting period, feeling they have done all they can.
Another common solution is to hire out a pilot at an hourly rate to come on set where a drone is used. Technically, the pilot ought to be the one operating the drone, but is in most cases much less equipped to do so than the owner, and just serves as a legal stand in. Kind of shady, but hey.
At the very least, you should definitely register your drone, which was a new and specific legal requirement put into place by the FAA back in December. It seems unfair to get singled out and busted for this, but you don’t want to be that kid that got his pants sued off for torrenting some Nirvana songs.
The expectation is that the FAA will soon react to the drone boom and that there will likely be a specific license for operating a drone commercially. Until then, it’s kind of the Wild Wild West out there, and it seems that most people will be quasi-following the law until appropriate and specific legislation is put into place.
I attended a very informative and helpful webinar on this and other issues relating to drone videography by Story and Heart, and would recommend it for additional information. Check out To the Skies–Drone Filmmaking Webinar here.