On Location: Demand surges for drones on film and TV sets

This image provided by Aerial MOB, LLC, shows their eight rotor Sky Jib Helicopter in San Diego, Calif., in August 2013.
(Tony Carmean / Associated Press)

Demand for drones on film and TV sets is soaring.

Southern California companies that supply unmanned aircraft systems for filming say they have received a surge in orders from clients since the Federal Aviation Administration cleared the way for their use in September.

“They are just beating down our door,” said Tony Carmean, a principal in San Diego-based Aerial MOB.

Carmean said he had received some 50 requests from producers of movies, TV shows and commercials to use his drone equipment on film shoots. Aerial MOB has already submitted about 18 applications for drone permits to the FAA, two of which have been approved, he said.


Most of the projects will film in Southern California early next year. Carmean said he could not identify the projects because of non-disclosure agreements.

Aerial MOB, whose website lists clients such as Nike, Tesla, MTV and Chrysler, offers drones that weigh from 10 to 50 pounds and rent for as much as $15,000 a day.

Companies such as Aerial MOB had been using drones on film sets until a few years ago, when the FAA clamped down on their use.

Drones are allowed in other countries and have been used in such films as the James Bond movie “Skyfall” and this summer’s “Transformers: Age of Extinction.”

Chris Schuster, chief executive of Vortex Aerial of Corona, said his company is getting three to five calls a day from customers. To keep up with demand, Vortex is hiring more pilots and building additional drones.

“We’re getting calls from everywhere — you name it,” said Schuster, who has used drones on the films “John Wick” and “Dark Skies.”

Until recently, Vortex Aerial did much of its work in South America, Canada and Europe.

“Now we don’t have to go overseas,” he said. “We’re looking to ramp up.”

FilmL.A., which handles film permits for the city and the county, has been getting up to five calls a day about drone use but has yet to issue any permits that include use of drones, a spokesman for the group said. Permit applications are handled by the FAA.

Under the new rules, 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 FAA took the fist step toward allowing the film and television industry to use drones when it granted a waiver request filed this year by seven aerial photography companies, including Aerial MOB and Vortex Aerial.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx also determined that drones used for such operations do not need an FAA-issued certificate of airworthiness after concluding that they are not a threat to national airspace users or national security.

The decision was hailed by the entertainment industry and the Motion Picture Assn. of America, which said such a move would allow for more nimble filmmaking and minimize the use of helicopters, which can be hazardous.

“It’s going to open up myriad creative opportunities,” said Steven Poster, president of the International Cinematographers Guild. “It’s another new platform for us to find ways of making images. It’s very exciting.”

The FAA already allows law enforcement agencies, fire departments and other public agencies to use drones. However, it has, in effect, banned their use for commercial purposes since 2007.

The agency approved waiver requests from Astraeus Aerial, Aerial MOB, HeliVideo Productions, Pictorvision Inc., RC Pro Productions Consulting and Snaproll Media.

Despite the growing interest, major studios have yet to fully embrace the new technology.
“They are definitely taking a measured approach,” Carmean said.

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