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Commercial Drones: A Dogfight at the FAA

The FAA prepares for a deluge of unmanned aircraft in U.S. skies

Last fall, Russ Freeman’s successful business shooting commercial aerial photos and video flew straight into a political battle over control of the nation’s skies. Freeman’s MI6 Films, based in Hollywood, captures dramatic overhead views for movies, TV ads, and realtors showing off mansions. Instead of hiring a photographer to shoot from a helicopter with a long lens, he uses small drones equipped with high-definition cameras controlled by radio from the ground.

That is, he did until October, when the Federal Aviation Administration grounded his operation. Freeman’s business ran afoul of FAA rules barring the use of unmanned aircraft for commercial purposes. The agency permits hobbyists to fly small radio-controlled planes and helicopters, but only in unpopulated areas and only below 400 feet. “ ‘Until we figure out how to regulate it, nobody’s flying,’ ” Freeman says an FAA official told him. “He literally put us out of business.” In an e-mail, the agency declined to comment on Freeman’s case but said it investigates allegations of unauthorized drone flights.