Drone aircraft photography won an Academy Award this year for technical achievement and is increasingly beckoning Hollywood studios seeking dramatic aerial footage at low cost.
There’s just one holdup: it’s illegal in the U.S.
The regulatory uncertainty over commercial unmanned aircraft flights has led movie makers to join a wave of sometimes competing interest groups trying to influence U.S. lawmakers and regulators. Drone regulation was among many issues the Motion Picture Association of America lobbied on in 2012 and 2013, at a total cost of $4.11 million.
“I would say it’s a priority for all the major studios,” Kate Bedingfield, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based trade group, said in an interview.
Movie makers, real-estate agents, criminal-defense lawyers and farmers are among at least 68 groups with a newfound political interest in drones, according to Center for Responsive Politics data compiled by Bloomberg.
An issue once dominated by the defense sector, which supplies military drones, is increasingly a domestic debate pitting privacy and safety risks against business interests in an industry forecast to be worth billions of dollars. Of the groups that reported lobbying on drones in 2012 and 2013, half had no connection to defense companies, according to the data.
“Drones could be used for good or evil, so we need rules in place so we know what’s permissible,” Mason Clutter, national security and privacy counsel at the Washington-based National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said in an interview. Her group advocates limits on police use of drones.
Even Amazon.com Inc., the Seattle-based online retailer, reported lobbying on drones last year after Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos announced he hopes to deliver packages by drone someday.
“There’s certainly not a month that goes by that we don’t have at least one or several contacts from people who have questions and concerns, and who want to use the technology,” Representative Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican and member of the House Unmanned Systems Caucus, said in an interview.
The latest wave of drone lobbying is a response to the earlier success of industry groups that won provisions in 2011 and 2012 laws speeding the introduction into the civilian world of technology proven in war, and follows a well-established pattern, said Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.
“When new technologies develop, interests are by definition created,” Loomis, co-author of “The Sound of Money: How Political Interests Get What They Want,” said in an interview.
“Who is going to take advantage of it? How are the rules going to be written? Who gets to be in on the ground floor? A hundred different questions. And these are the kinds of things that lobbyists are good at.”
At the moment, commercial drone use hasn’t been permitted in the U.S. as the Federal Aviation Administration struggles to write regulations. A proposal allowing limited commercial operations for drones weighing less than 55 pounds (25 kilograms) is due by the end of the year.
Attempts to enforce existing restrictions haven’t always gone well as small helicopters and planes become available online or at hobby shops for as little as a few hundred dollars.
The FAA’s first attempt to fine a drone operator flying without agency permission was overturned by an administrative law judge, leaving its authority in question. The agency has appealed the decision.
The U.S. National Park Service also entered the fray, announcing May 2 that drones were banned from Yosemite National Park in California. The devices are noisy and “impact the wilderness experience,” the agency said in a release.
At the same time, standards for privacy on small drones capable of carrying cameras and hovering inches from someone’s bedroom window are up in the air. That has led groups like the defense lawyers and the American Civil Liberties Union to seek protections against law enforcement abuses, according to the lobbying records.
At least 28 universities and local government agencies also reported lobbying on drones, most of them chasing the economic development forecast for the unmanned industry, records show.
“Our focus is job creation,” Michael Gessel, vice president of government programs for Ohio’s Dayton Development Coalition, said in an interview. The group spent $610,000 from 2011 through 2013 trying to get the FAA to locate a drone test facility in Ohio, among other issues. The state wasn’t among the six sites chosen.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International -- an Arlington, Virginia-based trade group that itself spent $1.24 million lobbying since 2007 -- forecasts the industry will create 100,000 new jobs and $82 billion in economic impact in the decade after the FAA allows drones to fly among traditional aircraft. It doesn’t keep records of how many drones are sold.
The movie makers have been joined by groups like the National Association of Broadcasters and National Association of Realtors wanting permission to use drones as a platform for photography, according to the records.
An association representing rural and farming interests, the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, began lobbying in favor of greater drone use in agriculture and other applications last year, according to its reports.
The Grange position is at odds with the National Agricultural Aviation Association, the Alexandria, Virginia-based trade group for aerial pesticide applicators, or crop dusters. It’s concerned that collision risks increase when small unmanned aircraft fly at the same altitudes as planes applying chemicals to fields, Andrew Moore, executive director of the group, said in an interview. The group spent $106,000 in 2013 lobbying on that and a variety of issues, it reported.
While there is disagreement about drone policy, their potential excites people in a way few other topics do, Representative Frank LoBiondo, the New Jersey Republican who is chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, said in an interview.
“You have to be living in a cave somewhere not to recognize the economic opportunity and the potential of something that is really good,” LoBiondo said.