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[September 01, 2014]
Hampton Roads businesses want to use UAVs [Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) :: ]
(Daily Press (Newport News, VA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Sept. 01--m2 Pictures in downtown Hampton found a way to save money while enhancing its cinematic capability for TV show production: using a "drone." "It's really important for us to stay on the cutting edge of technology," said Kathy Martin, m2 Pictures executive in charge of production. "Any company doesn't want to be left behind. This is something that's changing our industry dramatically. We're trying to keep up." m2 Pictures isn't alone in the film industry or in Hampton Roads. Other businesses in the region would like to use remote-controlled multi-rotor helicopters as a way to enhance what they already do. Commercial use is being restricted, however, until the Federal Aviation Administration comes up with rules.
And companies are growing impatient.
For now, m2's camera department supervisor Jacin Buchanan of Norfolk practices flying the CineStar 8 HL (heavy lift), which is capable of carrying the firm's professional video cameras. He trained for two days on the CineStar and has practiced on flight simulators and with a quadcopter, one of the smaller devices that have become popular in recent years because of their low cost -- $1,000 or less.
m2 plans to take the octocopter to Alaska this fall to film footage for the "Ice Cold Killers" show for Investigation Discovery, Buchanan said. Usually, the firm has to rent a helicopter, but using a drone is safer and a fraction of the cost, Martin said.
"We're constantly trying to read what's happening," Buchanan said about the slow FAA rulemaking process.
"We'd like to know what the rules are," Martin said, calling the technology a "game-changer." Across the country, real estate firms are finding that videos made with drones are better at marketing some properties. Peninsula-based Liz Moore and Associates hired a Virginia Commonwealth University film student to fly a remote-controlled model aircraft to film a handful of listings, President Liz Moore said. In particular, online video of the Marl Inn in Yorktown shows off the property in a way that's inaccessible with traditional still photography, she said. Plus, it's cost-effective and can get closer.
"Our firm prides itself on staying on the leading edge of new technology, so it was a natural fit for us," Moore said. "We are sensitive to safety and privacy concerns, and so I am interested to see what the FAA issues in terms of clearly defined regulations. In the meantime, we will limit the scope of our use to filming our client's properties with their express permission." To many in the unmanned aircraft systems field, these smaller devices aren't drones because even though they're unmanned, they're controlled by a person throughout the flight. The maker of the popular Phantom 2 quadcopter does, however, offer autonomous features, like a return to the takeoff site if it loses its radio signal. It even allows for autonomous flight by marking GPS coordinates in a smartphone app, according to its website.
The Federal Aviation Administration treats these devices and model planes as aircraft. People using them for recreation are supposed to follow model aircraft guidelines, like flying below 400 feet and staying out of populated areas.
If unmanned aircraft are being used outside of a hobby, FAA spokesman Les Dorr says users need to get operating permission from the agency, which requires the aircraft be certified and its pilot licensed. Only two models of commercial unmanned aircraft have been approved so far.
In 2012, Congress tasked the FAA with developing a plan for their safe integration into manned aircraft space and for commercial use. The 2012 reauthorization act precluded the FAA from making rules for model aircraft flown for hobby purposes if they weighed less than 55 pounds and did not interfere with manned aircraft. And if flown within 5 miles of an airport, their operators would be required to notify the airport and traffic control tower in advance.
In June, the FAA released its interpretation of that special rule, which says those devices must adhere to the 2012 act's conditions to qualify as model aircraft and that the agency has authority to take enforcement action against operators for safety violations.
Section 333 of the 2012 act says that until the rules are in place, the Secretary of Transportation can determine if certain unmanned aircraft may operate safely in the national airspace. So in June, the FAA began accepting requests for exemptions. Seven film and production companies filed first. As of Friday, the FAA counted exemption requests from 31 companies, including Amazon, which is developing a way to use drones for delivery.
On Aug. 22, the 1,400-member Drone Pilots Association, the UAS America Fund and SkyPan International filed a lawsuit against the FAA in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. They are asking for a reversal of the FAA's recent interpretation of the model aircraft rule. The plaintiffs say the inability to use model aircraft for commercial purposes hinders their activities and isn't in accordance with law. The FAA declined to comment on pending litigation.
New York City-based SkyCamUSA has provided aerial photography and video for nearly a decade, said Jimmy Olivero of Virginia Beach, who helps run SkyCam's operations. The company uses licensed pilots and helicopters, balloons, blimps and remote-controlled aircraft to film shots for production companies mostly in New York, Miami and Los Angeles, he said. Olivero, who books SkyCam's gigs, estimates the company gets 30 leads a day.
SkyCam and partner Drones of Prey sponsored the first-ever East Coast X Film and TV Festival on Aug. 21-24 to coincide with the East Coast Surfing Championships at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront. With permission from the festival, Doug Bell, a licensed pilot of Orlando with Drones of Prey, filmed event scenes and performed demonstrations with a camera-equipped octocopter.
On Aug. 23, Bell flew the remote-controlled aircraft while another crewmate remotely controlled the camera to shoot footage of some classic cars for a local reality TV show. While crew blocked off an area along the boardwalk, a couple of bicyclists made it through and a large crowd formed around the action, erupting into applause when the drone landed.
Olivero, while not a pilot with SkyCam, has been practicing using his small quadcopter equipped with a GoPro camera in anticipation of a burgeoning commercial industry. To raise awareness of the technology in Virginia and Hampton Roads, he provides footage of wineries, real estate and events for free when he gets permission from organizers and landowners.
Both SkyCam and Drones of Prey have contributed money to the Drone Pilots Association's recent lawsuit against the FAA, Olivero and Bell said. They agree that the devices and operators should be regulated for everyone's safety but do not understand why the same aircraft hobbyists use are prohibited for commercial use. Footage from both firms has appeared in a number of TV shows.
"Since when did the FAA get involved in regulating business?" Bell asked.
In 2007, the FAA published a notice to update model aircraft guidelines issued in 1981 that said such aircraft could not be used for commercial purposes even if the flights adhered to the guidelines, and that commercial operations would be authorized on a case-by-case basis.
Brendan Schulman, the lawyer in the Aug. 22 lawsuit, is the same that defended a drone operator fined $10,000 by the FAA for filming scenes over the University of Virginia medical center for an advertisement. In March, an administrative law judge dismissed the fine, siding with Schulman's argument that guidelines and policy statements are not rules of law. The FAA is appealing to the full National Transportation Safety Board.
Only two fines have been levied against small unmanned aircraft operators, Dorr said. Typically, the FAA will first give a warning letter with the intention of educating the aircraft users, he said. Proposed rules for small unmanned aircraft under 55 pounds should publish later this year.
"The technology is moving faster than the regulations," Olivero said, adding it can seem like the "Wild Wild West." Look for a second story on how the new Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership can help Hampton Roads businesses. Bozick can be reached by phone at 757-247-4741. Sign up for a free weekday business news email at TidewaterBiz.com.
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