Hollywood will soon have a new angle on capturing aerial footage.
The Federal Aviation Administration announced Thursday that it approved exemptions that would for the first time allow aerial photo and video production companies to use drones on film sets.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx also determined that drones used for such operations do not need an FAA-issued certificate of airworthiness, based on a finding they do not pose a threat to the national airspace or national security.
The FAA was responding to a request filed this year by seven companies seeking permission to use "unmanned aircraft systems" for filming television shows and films on sets that are closed to the public.
"Today's announcement is a significant milestone in broadening commercial [unmanned aircraft systems] use while ensuring we maintain our world-class safety record in all forms of flight," Foxx said in a statement.
The decision could pave the way for the mining, agriculture, oil and other industries to seek commercial use of the technology.
"It's a landmark decision for the film industry," said Paul Fraidenburgh, a Los Angeles attorney with Buchalter Nemer who represents Hollywood clients seeking use of drones. "It just levels the playing field between major motion picture companies and independent filmmakers. You're talking about shots you couldn't get before because you can't afford to hire a helicopter."
The agency already allows law enforcement agencies, fire departments and other public agencies to use drones but has mostly banned their use for commercial purposes since 2007.
Drones are allowed in other countries and have been used in such films as the James Bond movie "Skyfall" and "Transformers: Age of Extinction."
The FAA has put off issuing regulations on commercial use out of concern that doing so could create safety hazards for conventional commercial aircraft.
The decision was hailed by the entertainment industry and the Motion Picture Assn. of America, which sponsored the companies seeking the drone waiver.
They argued that permitting filmmakers to use drones would allow for more nimble and creative filmmaking and minimize the use of helicopters, which can be dangerous. Last year, three people were killed when a helicopter crashed in Acton during the filming of a reality TV show for Discovery Channel.
"Today's announcement is a victory for audiences everywhere as it gives filmmakers yet another way to push creative boundaries and create the kinds of scenes and shots we could only imagine just a few years ago," MPAA Chairman Chris Dodd said in a statement.
The FAA decision would bolster U.S. jobs, he added at a Washington news conference to announce the decision.
"Now we're going to be able to do this at home," Dodd said. "It's going to bring a lot of business back to the U.S."
The FAA approved waiver requests from Astraeus Aerial, Aerial MOB, HeliVideo Productions, Pictorvision Inc., RC Pro Productions Consulting and Snaproll Media. The FAA said it was still reviewing a request from a seventh company, Flying-Cam Inc.
To receive the exemptions, the firms had to show their drone operations would not pose a public safety threat.
"We are thoroughly satisfied these operations will not pose a hazard to other aircraft or to people and property on the ground," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement.
The companies will have to comply with specific safety conditions, including requirements that drones be inspected by the FAA before use. Drones can be used only on sets that are closed to the public and cannot be operated at night. Operators must have private pilot certificates, keep the drones within their line of sight and below an altitude of 400 feet.
The agency said it is considering 40 requests for exemptions for other commercial uses of drones.
"I want to stress that we are open to receiving petitions from anyone," Huerta told reporters. "This process opens up a whole new avenue for companies wishing to introduce unmanned aircraft into their businesses."