Three men filming a reality show for the Discovery Channel were killed early Sunday morning when their Bell 206B Jet Ranger crashed at Polsa Rosa Ranch in Acton, California. The accident, one of the worst in recent memory, comes shortly after the Motion Picture Association of America filed disclosures revealing the organization is lobbying the Federal Aviation Administration to create guidelines governing the use of drones.
Hollywood's drones — small, multi-rotor helicopters equipped with cameras — are very different than the Predator drones that have carried out targeted killings of enemy combatants abroad. The MPAA argues that its drones offer a safer, cheaper way to shoot aerial cinematography, and says federal guidelines are years overdue.
According to Colin Guinn, the North American CEO of DJI Innovations, a company that manufacturers unmanned aerial vehicles, accidents such as Sunday's are all too common in the industry, and they could be avoided if the government would move faster to unleash Hollywood's drone army in waiting.
Next month, a colleague of Guinn's will shoot a dramatic closing moment of the upcoming film 10 Things I Hate About Life on the Santa Monica pier. The shot, he explains, is a close-up on the lead actress sitting in the ferris wheel; the camera will pan out from her face to capture the pier and and the surrounding landscape.
"We could easily do that with an RC [remote controlled] helicopter — hover 15, 20 feet away, get right on them, then slowly pull away and reveal the coastline," Guinn says, but, "since the California Film Commission won't grant permits for using UAS [Unmanned Aerial System] right now, because the FAA guidelines haven't come out yet, we're going to be using a full-scale aircraft to get that shot."
Drones have been used by filmmakers for years (in 1995, Emanuel Previnaire won a technical Academy Award for his pioneering use of unmanned helicopters for cinematography), despite the fact that, in the absence of guidelines, it's technically illegal to be paid for or otherwise profit from operating an unmanned aerial vehicle.
Guinn calls the FAA's heel-dragging on drones "criminal."
"We're going to be hovering our helicopter out over the Santa Monica pier, or over the water, well outside the velocity chart, several minutes at a time getting this shot where human lives are at stake," Guinn explains. "People die doing this. Instead of us using a little drone to get the same shot. What happens if the drone fails? It crashes in the water. Who cares?"
The MPAA filed a lobbying disclosure in January, but Howard Gantman, spokesperson for the organization, says that the association has been asking the government agency to issue guidelines for several years now.
"Right now, we're interested in having some good common sense regulations for what's essentially a small helicopter," Gantman says. "It's a couple years' overdue already."
A spokesperson for the FAA confirms that the rules that would govern commercial use of drones are still in the process of development.
"There is currently no provision under the regulations for someone to operate an unmanned aircraft and get paid for it," says Les Dorr of the FAA. "That's the type of thing that the rule we are drafting will cover."
At this time, Dorr said, there is no estimated date at which the rule will be completed.
The already protracted process of crafting regulations for commercial drones could be further complicated by a growing anti-drone sentiment.
The Virginia-based Rutherford Institute helped pass the first local resolution outlawing drones in Charlottesville, Virginia, last week. The organization believes drones constitute a threat to Americans' safety, privacy, and free speech.
John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute says that the organization does not object to a private company, like a film studio, using drones for aerial filming. He adds, "The thing that we object to is the government using the information they collect in a court of law."
Whitehead worries that if and when it becomes legal to use drones commercially, "the government will be tapping into those private sources" to monitor private citizens.