Sept. 25, 2014, will be a day etched in Tony Carmean’s mind for a long time.
That was the day he and his partners became the first cinematography company granted Federal Aviation Administration approval to use unmanned aerial systems, also known as drones, for filmmaking and commercial productions.
“Three or four years ago, my friend was really into remote-controlled aircraft as a hobby,” said Carmean, who grew up in Alton and has family in the area. “He was always trying to get me into them ... now he’s one of my business partners at Aerial Mob.”
Aerial Mob is a San Diego-based company known as an innovator in unmanned cinematography and unmanned aerial systems technology. Aerial Mob has a partnership with the Motion Picture Association of America, which has endorsed applications for the use of drones on movie sets.
“Most people think of the word drone and get a bad image in their mind,” Carmean said. “Actually, they are just really sophisticated remote-controlled planes or aircraft — they’re one and the same. To be able to use them to film commercials and movies will be a lot safer than using a helicopter and a lot less expensive as well.”
The biggest concerns for the FAA are safety and privacy, which resulted in a ban on the use of drones for commercial purposes, but under a law passed by Congress in 2012, the FAA is developing rules that ultimately will allow drones to operate in national airspace.
“The FAA has leaned on us for knowledge of the technology,” Carmean said. “Now that they’re (FAA) setting up new guidelines, we’ve been able to help them with the technical aspect of robotics technology and the satellite-guided navigation.”
Under the FAA’s guidelines, the unmanned aerial vehicles must stay at least 100 feet from people who are not part of the production crew. The vehicle must weigh less than 55 pounds, including the camera and lens, and cannot fly more than 57 miles per hour. Another concern for the FAA is airspace safety. Drones cannot operate higher than 400 feet and must stay at least five miles from an airport to ensure they do not interfere with other aircraft.
“Using the UAS will save costs for film production companies as well as cut down on the time it takes to film scenes,” Carmean said. “With cameras that are run on tracks, if the camera had to swing around in all directions, the track would be visible in the shot and would have to be digitally edited. With the drones, you don’t have that problem. It also can take up to a day to set up the needed equipment to film; with the UAS, it takes us about 30 minutes and we’re ready to shoot.”
The drones come in several sizes but have to maintain the FAA’s weight limit. Aerial Mob has drones ranging in size from 2 feet wide to 5 1/2 feet wide with four to eight propellers.
“We’re talking about being ready to go on set in two to three weeks,” Carmean said. “Right now we have over a dozen UAVs. I think around the first of November will be the target date.”
The use of drones is being considered for applications other than filming for Hollywood. In May, the FAA said it would allow companies to apply on a case-by-case basis for exemptions to the commercial drone ban and indicated it would look favorably on bids to use drones to inspect pipelines and monitor crops. Real estate agencies and oil production companies are interested in the technology.
“To use drones to check on maintenance on wind turbines or other areas that are difficult to access would be safer than sending a worker out,” Carmean said. “News media would greatly benefit from the use of UAVs in the field in unsafe environments such as weather or dangerous locations. I believe you’ll see the day when pizza will be delivered by a drone.”
To date, six companies have been given approval from the FAA for the use of drones, including Astraeus Aerial, Aerial Mob, Snaproll Media, Vortex Aerial, Pictorvision and HeliVideo Productions.