Air Safety

Commercial Drones: A Dogfight at the FAA


Last fall, Russ Freeman’s successful business shooting commercial aerial photos and video flew straight into a political battle over control of the nation’s skies. Freeman’s MI6 Films, based in Hollywood, captures dramatic overhead views for movies, TV ads, and realtors showing off mansions. Instead of hiring a photographer to shoot from a helicopter with a long lens, he uses small drones equipped with high-definition cameras controlled by radio from the ground.

That is, he did until October, when the Federal Aviation Administration grounded his operation. Freeman’s business ran afoul of FAA rules barring the use of unmanned aircraft for commercial purposes. The agency permits hobbyists to fly small radio-controlled planes and helicopters, but only in unpopulated areas and only below 400 feet. “ ‘Until we figure out how to regulate it, nobody’s flying,’ ” Freeman says an FAA official told him. “He literally put us out of business.” In an e-mail, the agency declined to comment on Freeman’s case but said it investigates allegations of unauthorized drone flights.

Once largely reserved for military use in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, drones will soon be widely available for sale in the U.S.—leaving the federal government to figure out how to deal with the prospect of a multitude of radio-controlled aircraft whizzing through cities, hovering over backyards, and possibly crashing into airplanes and buildings. Some drones are maneuvered with a simple hand-held remote. The most sophisticated models, now used by the military for high-altitude surveillance and bombing attacks, can travel thousands of miles from their ground controllers, who communicate with the crafts by satellite.

Commercial airlines and pilots are less than thrilled with the idea of sharing the sky. They point out there’s no system that allows operators of unmanned aircraft to see and steer clear of piloted helicopters and planes. Nor are there training requirements or standards for the ground-based “pilots” who guide them. It’s also not clear how drones should operate in airspace overseen by air-traffic controllers, where split-second maneuvering is sometimes required. Until unmanned aircraft can show they won’t run into other planes or the ground, they shouldn’t be allowed to fly with other traffic, says Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots Assn. “We have a long way to go.”

Some members of Congress aren’t content to wait. In the House, the 50-person Unmanned Systems Caucus, which includes members with drone makers in their home districts, is pushing the FAA to get moving. Last year’s defense bill ordered the agency to create six test sites where unmanned flights can operate beside regular aircraft. The unmanned-vehicle industry lobbied for the change, frustrated by what it sees as the FAA’s slow pace, says Paul McDuffee, head of commercial development at Insitu, a Boeing (BA) unit that makes unmanned vehicles. A bill that passed both houses of Congress this month orders the agency to complete a plan for integrating unmanned flights into the aviation system by Sept. 30, 2015.

The FAA also plans to unveil a rule in the spring allowing some small drone operators to operate under limited circumstances. Doug Davis, who oversees the only U.S. civilian test area for drones, at New Mexico State University, says he expects the FAA to restrict flights to aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds. The agency will likely approve only unpopulated areas and require that the drones stay within a few hundred feet off the ground and in sight of the operator.

It’s not only the technical problems the government has to solve. “There’s going to be a lot more discussion of the privacy issue” once police, the media, or private detectives are able to launch hard-to-see devices with cameras aboard, says Davis. The FAA has granted 295 special permits to researchers, law enforcement, and the military to operate drones in the U.S., though it won’t disclose who has the permits or what they are using them for.

Freeman says all he wants is a final rule so he can operate within the law. A small-plane pilot, he stumbled into drone photography after renting helicopters became too expensive and cumbersome. A modified radio-controlled helicopter designed for hobbyists, with four-foot-diameter blades, got him the same pictures at about half the cost. It could also get much closer to the subject and fly down streets between buildings.

After capturing overhead views of an MTV beach party last year, word spread, and he was hired for music videos, car commercials, and documentaries. Before the FAA shut him down, “We were flying nearly every day,” Freeman says. “We were booked three to five weeks in advance.” Now he’s back to shooting his photos the old-fashioned way: with a photographer aboard a helicopter and a human being at the stick.

The bottom line: Although the FAA bans most unmanned aircraft, the agency has issued 295 special flight permits to researchers and law enforcement.

Levin is a reporter for Bloomberg News in Washington.

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