In a surprising move last week, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) granted permission to six Hollywood companies to film using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
The FAA is currently developing rules to integrate UAVs into the domestic airspace, and to date the agency has blocked virtually all commercial operations from taking place.
Under the current system, those looking to operate UAVs for commercial purposes can only proceed if they receive an exemption from the FAA. Although numerous companies have attempted to obtain exemptions, the FAA has been reluctant to approve such applications. In fact, prior to the Hollywood exemptions, the agency has only approved a limited number of commercial flights for oil companies operating in remote areas of Alaska. The FAA defends its cautionary approach to regulation of UAVs by pointing to a need to develop a comprehensive framework to protect the safety of people and property on the ground.
Although the Hollywood exemptions represent a move in a positive direction, the restrictions placed on the companies are quite onerous, for instance the operations must take place in a controlled closed-set environment and may only be completed below 400 feet and within the visual line of sight.
The FAA has been working to develop UAV regulations since the enactment of the FAA Modernization Act of 2012. Although the notice of proposed rules is set to be released sometime this fall, companies still face a long wait until commercial operations become mainstream. The release of the draft rules will be followed by a public notice and comment period, and subsequently the agency will have to craft the final rules.
While the US determines how best to regulate UAVs, it is quickly falling behind other countries that already have frameworks in place to support commercial operations. For instance, Canada has adopted a system that allows companies to apply for Special Flight Operations Certificates (SFOCs) in order to complete commercial flights. The Canadian regulations generally do not establish bright line rules – for instance they do not specify whether you need a pilot’s license to operate a UAV or whether it is permitted to fly beyond the line of sight. Rather, Transport Canada (the regulatory agency that issues SFOCs) assesses applications using a case-by-case approach. Although the Canadian system is somewhat inefficient because of the lack of specificity, over the last few years an increasing number of SFOCs have been issued to companies representing a variety of industries including the film industry, agriculture and oil and gas.
Diana Marina Cooper is the Head of the Unmanned Aerial Systems and Robotics Practice Group at LaBarge Weinstein LLP, and is also an Associate in the firm’s Intellectual Property and Licensing Group. She advises drone companies on airspace regulations, intellectual property, privacy and commercial contracts. Diana also provides intellectual property, privacy by design and technology transaction services to emerging technology companies. She has authored a number of publications and has given talks on intellectual property and privacy issues raised by drones and robotics.