James Bond Drones Idle in U.S. as Pilots Oppose Waivers

Even James Bond would have trouble getting permission to fly a drone in the U.S. today.

Flying-Cam Inc., which used drones to capture Istanbul-filmed sequences in the spy thriller “Skyfall,” has asked to use similar unmanned aerial photography on closed movie sets in the U.S. The request for a drone waiver and six others by film-production companies have run into opposition from pilots who say there still aren’t adequate protections to allow such use.

“Unmanned aerial systems have no business in public airspace until they can reliably sense, see and avoid other aircraft,” Richard Lee, of Sandy, Utah, said in a comment posted July 7 on the potential Federal Aviation Administration regulatory waivers. “This is a disaster waiting to happen.”

About half of the people commenting on the waiver proposals objected on grounds that tougher licensing and standards are needed to trim the risks of mid-air collisions. While the proposal would only apply to seven companies and have strict parameters for use, the comments show the high hurdles the drone industry is up against as it tries to go mainstream.

“If we’re going to do this right, it’s going to take some slow, guarded steps,” Benjamin Trapnell, an aeronautics professor at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks who has worked with the FAA to get approval to fly unmanned aircraft, said in an interview. “The issues are complicated.”

Today is the last day to file comments on the proposals, which were made public June 2. The FAA hasn’t said when decisions will be made. It can’t comment while the proposals are under consideration, said Kristie Greco, an FAA spokeswoman.

Seeking Waivers

Drones are currently barred from commercial operations in the continental U.S. The seven production companies, which include Flying-Cam and Astraeus Aerial, have asked the FAA for waivers that would let them use drones as long as they follow 18 safety provisions such as altitude limits of 400 feet above ground and a restriction to a “sterile area” within sight of the drone operator.

Camera-toting drones have been used outside the U.S. for movie and television scenes, and companies should be able to bring that work to this country, Howard Gantman, a spokesman for the Motion Picture Association of America, said in an interview.

By taking the pilot and crew out of aircraft used for filming, the risks of injuries and death would be lower, according to Gantman and the applications from the seven companies. The Washington-based MPAA worked with the production companies on their FAA requests.

Licensed Pilots

At least one licensed private pilot must be at the controls, joined by an observer and a camera operator, according to the seven proposals, which are identical in their wording. Filmmakers would notify FAA safety inspectors before a shoot and obtain the consent of all crew members, and drones would weigh less than 55 pounds (25 kilograms).

While the proposal is a “thoughtful” first step, it doesn’t address important safety issues, William Winn, general manager of the National EMS Pilots Association, said in an interview. The group represents crews on air-medical flights, which are allowed to fly as low as 300 feet above the ground, meaning it’s possible they could be within the proposed drone-flight zones, Winn said.

The proposal doesn’t contain requirements that drones be lighted so other aircraft can see them or that drone operators be capable of radioing FAA air-traffic controllers or other aircraft that may stray into the area, Winn said. And there are no penalties for violating the provisions, he said.

Conflict Potential

“There is still a potential for a conflict that isn’t totally provided for in what I see here,” he said. As of yesterday, Winn’s group hadn’t posted comments to the government regulations website.

When new federal regulations or changes in rules are proposed the government typically allows one to three months for companies, academics and the general public to submit formal comments in support or against the proposals. The public comment period can often sway the government to make changes.

One anonymous comment posted to the government’s website raised concern about the transparency of the proposals. Some of the safety measures planned by the filmmakers are contained in an operations manual that the group has asked the FAA not to release because it contains “proprietary information,” according to the applications.

The waiver applications should be rejected until the public can review the manual, the comment posted July 7 said.

In addition to Flying-Cam and Astraeus Aerial, the seven companies include Aerial MOB LLC of San Diego; HeliVideo Productions LLC of Austin, Texas; Pictorvision Inc. of Van Nuys, California; Vortex Aerial of Riverside, California; and Snaproll Media LLC of Franklin, Tennessee.

‘Employment Opportunities’

Supporters of the proposal said safety protections were adequate and it would help the economy.

“Allowing the use of these types of unmanned devices will open up a whole new field of employment opportunities which is desperately needed here in the U.S.,” Terry Carmean of Godfrey, Illinois, said in a July 7 comment.

The filmmakers’ proposal comes as the pace of activity on the regulation of drones is picking up. Amazon.com Inc. has filed a similar request to the FAA seeking a waiver to test the drones it wants to use for package deliveries.

The FAA is also considering requests to grant waivers allowing unmanned aircraft to fly in agriculture, surveying and the oil industry, according to a June 25 release.

The agency does plan to eventually move away from piecemeal approvals and release by the end of the year a comprehensive proposal for commercial drones weighing less than 55 pounds.

It’s also attempting to set limits on recreational drone use, which is permitted under U.S. law as long as the operator isn’t being paid. These flights shouldn’t be done within five miles of an airport, the FAA said June 23.

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