Look, up in the sky. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s …
If the Motion Picture Association of America has its way, it soon could be a camera-equipped pilotless drone shooting the overhead chase scenes for Hollywood's action thrillers.
The MPAA is pushing the Federal Aviation Administration to allow the use of what have been called “drones” -- but in the movie business are far more likely the size of model planes and model helicopters than anything like what the U.S. is using to target terrorists.
Studios see the airborne vehicles as a way to get better long shots with fewer safety risks and at reduced cost. Currently, such drone use is legal in some foreign countries, but not in the U.S.
In fact, some of the opening scenes in “Skyfall” were shot in Turkey using a helicopter drone system. France has also approved use of the drones, and one was used last year for scenes in “The Smurfs 2.”
“What we are looking for is line-of-sight things that can be utilized in innovative ways,” MPAA spokesman Howard Gantman told TheWrap. “These could be used much more safely than going up a tree and much more cheaply than renting a helicopter,” he said.
Under language in the FAA’s reauthorization by congress, the agency must in the next 18 months develop rules for commercial use of what it calls “unmanned aircraft systems” of 55 pounds or less.
The language is intended to resolve a quirk in current FAA rules: Recreational use of model planes and model helicopters -- including those carrying cameras -- are currently allowed, but commercial use is banned.
Model airplanes can only be flown below 400 feet above ground level and away from airports and air traffic -- but not by individuals or companies flying them for business purposes.
This means, for example, that student videos and films can use drone camera shots, but not commercial films; commercial use is limited to experimental research and development and flight trainings.
“A private company can obtain a special airworthiness certificate in the experimental category, but experimental certificate regulations preclude carrying people or property for compensation or hire,” FAA spokesman Les Dorr told TheWrap.
While the MPAA acknowledges its interest and the MPAA’s lobbying form filed with the U.S. Senate says specifically the organization is pushing on the issue of “unmanned aerial aircraft,” so far such lobbying has been informal, and the MPAA has not had actual written communications with the FAA.
Dorr said the agency will seek written comments from potential users only after it announces a formal ruling.
Another reason for the MPAA’s interest now is that the price for the drones has begun to drop.
Rental of a real helicopter runs about $1,700 an hour, for example, with a pilot another $1,900 a day -- and crew is additional. One Indiegogo ad seeking development money for the company's “Alpha Dragonfly,” says a drone that can be used for camera work will retail for from $119 to $249, depending on accessories.
The ad, which offered a Dragonfly for development supporters for $99, sought $110,000 in development money and raised more than $1.1 million.
The website of Flying-cam.com whose helicopter drone system was used in “Skyfall” and “The Smurfs 2” in Paris and movies in China and South Korea, also features pictures taken of its use in America for Disneyland’s 50th anniversary, Alaska’s Tourism Board and commercials or videos by Bridgestone and others.
All that said, the movie industry is only one among many looking at the technology.
“Many industries are realizing how unmanned aircraft could help their bottom lines,” Melanie Hinton, senior communications manager for the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a group pushing robotic devices, told TheWrap.
Indeed, it’s expected that the TV and movie industry will be small players in the drones use. Companies that originally developed smaller drones for the military and wanting to now expand the drones use for civilian purposes have been pushing hardest for the FAA to act.
They hope FAA action will make it easier both for law-enforcement agencies and private companies to use the devices.
Steven Gitlin, VP-marketing for AeroVironment Inc., a company that makes several military drones it wants to market to civilian market. The company’s 5-pound Qube drone is among those that come with video capability.
He notes that the high cost of helicopters means relatively few police departments can afford them. Those same departments might be candidates for drone purchases.
Then there is the civilian market.
Gitlin said the company hopes to market the products both for search-and-rescue and policing missions and for uses in agriculture; monitoring of bridges and microwave transmitters; and security for public events including marathons and concerts.
In addition, oil and gas companies want unmanned aircraft to efficiently monitor oil rigs, pipelines and other infrastructure, said Hinton, and farmers “want to use unmanned aircraft to monitor the health of their crops, detect for drought conditions, or more efficiently distribute pesticides.
“And in addition to helping the private sector, unmanned aircraft have helped firefighters battle wildfires, police search for missing persons and researchers study everything from hurricanes to wildlife. The potential for unmanned aircraft to help save time, save money and even save lives is virtually limitless,” she said.