Amazon, BNSF among companies seeking waiver for drone approval

Alan Levin (c) 2014, Bloomberg News. WASHINGTON — The decision to approve drones for filming movies in the U.S. may create opportunities for other industries — from crop dusting to map making — that see value in using unmanned aircraft.

The Federal Aviation Administration is considering requests to allow drones to be used in agriculture operations, land surveying and oil field inspections. Thursday, six movie and television companies were granted the first permits for commercial drone flights in the continental U.S.

Those production companies convinced the FAA that they are capable of safely using drones in filming scenes, successfully navigating a regulatory process that now becomes a model for other businesses seeking approval, said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. He singled out the “promise of new advances in agriculture and utility safety and maintenance.”

“It’s a crucial step in the safe integration” of drones into the aviation system, Foxx later told reporters on a conference call Thursday. “As we’ve seen, uses for unmanned aircraft are only limited by our imagination.”

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At least 40 additional waiver requests are pending for commercial use of unmanned aircraft systems, including from Inc. and Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s BNSF Railway Co., according to the FAA.

Benjamin Trapnell, an aeronautics professor at the University of North Dakota who developed the school’s unmanned aircraft study program, said he is considering filing an application allowing students to fly drones at the school.

“The fact that they’re allowing anybody to do it from a commercial point of view is great,” Trapnell said in an interview.

The FAA Thursday said it granted the six movie and TV production companies waivers from regulations on general flight rules, pilot certification and equipment mandates designed for traditional aircraft as long as they meet certain conditions for safety. The agency is working with a seventh company on a similar drone approval. The companies developed safety procedures with the help of the Motion Picture Association of America trade group, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said.

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He also encouraged other industries to develop common practices for drone use applications. Businesses want to use drones for surveying, monitoring crops and inspecting electrical grids and pipelines, Huerta said.

While applauding the FAA’s decision as an “important milestone,” an Arlington, Virginia-based trade group for the drone industry said the agency must continue working on other applications.

“The FAA can and must do more,” Michael Toscano, president and chief executive office of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said in an e-mailed statement.

The Hollywood companies, which include closely held Aerial MOB LLC and Pictorvision Inc., will be allowed to fly small drones carrying cameras on closed sets. The FAA said the aircraft must be inspected before each flight and may only be operated during the day. Any accidents or incidents must be reported.

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The six companies filed almost identical petitions with the FAA on June 2 seeking to fly drones weighing less than 55 pounds (25 kilograms) no more than 400 feet (123 meters) from the ground within a “sterile area.”

The aircraft would be operated by a licensed pilot aided by a spotter to ensure safety, according to the applications. Each operator would submit a written plan of operations to local FAA offices at least three days before shooting begins.

So far, film companies wanting to use drones have had to do their shooting in other countries with more permissive rules.

“This is a big deal for us today,” Chris Dodd, chairman and chief executive officer of the Motion Picture Association of America, said. Drone technology allows for unique photography and is part of the industry’s attempts to push boundaries and draw new audiences, Dodd said.

The six companies that received waivers are Aerial MOB, Pictorvision, HeliVideo Productions LLC, RC Pro Productions Consulting LLC, Astraeus Aerial and Snaproll Media LLC. Flying- Cam Inc., which has used drones overseas to capture sequences for the James Bond film “Skyfall,” is the seventh company still awaiting final FAA approval.

Before Thursday, the only approvals for commercial drone flights in the U.S. had been for aerial inspections in oil operations in the Arctic regions of Alaska. The FAA plans to propose regulations allowing broader commercial use of unmanned aircraft by the end of the year. A final rule is at least a year away.

The approvals were part of the FAA’s approach of allowing broader drone use incrementally while ensuring safety, Huerta said.

Following a similar process, the agency on Sept. 10 gave drone flight approval to Texas EquuSearch, a nonprofit assisting in searches for missing persons. The group was given permission to fly for three days and it was granted within 24 hours, according to an e-mailed FAA statement.

A loosening of government restrictions on civilian and commercial drone use may be a boon for makers of small unmanned aircraft such as Paris-based Parrot and San Diego-based 3D Robotics Monrovia, California-based Aerovironment Inc., a maker of unmanned aircraft for the military, is already trying to expand its civilian business and is one of the 40 additional companies seeking an FAA exemption for commercial flights.