Drones Already Revolutionized Hollywood—And Have the Oscar to Prove It

FAA approval is an instance of the US playing catchup, nothing more.

American film companies want the right to not have to do this. Image: FAA Petition

The Federal Aviation Administration is considering letting Hollywood production companies fly drones to film movies. But, regardless of what they decide, drones aren't going to revolutionize the movie industry. Why? Because they already have.

Earlier this week, the FAA formally announced that seven aerial photo and video production companies—with the help of the Motion Picture Association of America—had asked the FAA for exemptions to its commercial drone ban.

It's a much-needed breath of good publicity for the FAA, which has thus far bungled the integration of drones into America's skies, and the announcement has led some to suggest that the next Hollywood blockbuster could be shot with a drone.

Well, hate to break it to you, but the last Hollywood blockbuster was already shot with a drone. The next one will be too, and so will any number of smaller indie productions. A drone pilot tells me that he's interviewing to fly a drone for the new Star Wars movie, which isn't really news, because every big action movie uses drones and aerial photography these days.

In fact, a drone has, quite literally, already been awarded an Oscar: This year, the Academy gave an award to Gifford Hooper and Phillip George "for the continuing development of the Helicam miniature helicopter camera system."

"The current Helicam is a high-speed, extremely maneuverable, turbine engine, radio-controlled miniature helicopter that supports professional film and digital cinema cameras," the Academy wrote. "Helicam provides a wide range of stabilized, remotely operated pan, tilt and roll capabilities, achieving shots impossible for full-size helicopters."

HoverCam, the company behind the Helicam, has been doing aerial filming for Hollywood movies for more than 25 years and has been used in "hundreds of films, commercials, dramas, TV & corporate productions." 

The company also does manned helicopter work. The cost? £750 an hour. Drone cam? £500 a day.

In fact, drones have been used in the United States to film several Hollywood blockbusters already—back before the FAA decided to crack down on whoever it could. The Aviator (which grossed over $100 million) used drone models of airplanes; Rushmore has a drone, TV shows on the Discovery Channel have used drones to film weather patterns for years—they were even cited in an FAA cease-and-desist order.

When Hollywood studios aren't willing to disobey the FAA blatantly, they take their shots overseas, where drones are already legal in many, many countries. That's how you end up with the UK's HoverCam winning an Oscar, while seven American companies—Aerial MOB, Astraeus Aerial, Flying-Cam, HeliVideo Productions, Pictorvision, Vortex Aerial, and Snaproll Media—end up having to beg the FAA to fly tiny drones over closed sets instead of doing something like this (taken from the companies' petitions):

According to those companies' petitions against the FAA, the drones they seek to use will be small, will operate within line of sight, and will fly within a "sterile area"—i.e., a movie set. 

"These limitations provide for at least an equivalent or even higher level of safety to operations under the current regulatory structure because the proposed operations represent a safety enhancement to the already safe movie and television filming operations conducted with conventional aircraft," the petition says. 

If the FAA grants movie exceptions for drones, it'll be great for those seven companies, and it might make Hollywood movies slightly cheaper to make.

But, make no mistake, Hollywood's biggest studios are going to get aerial shots no matter what the cost and no matter where shoots have to take place. And many filmmakers—big budget and small budget, professional and student—are already using drones in the United States, without FAA permission (not that they need it). This is the US government playing catchup, nothing more.