By Doug Gritzmacher
Creative Director, Z-Channel Films, Denver, Colorado
In January 2013, the Chinese company DJI released an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV or drone) they called the Phantom 1 that was equipped with a GoPro camera and along with it launched a movement: For the first time filmmakers had the ability to capture aerial video for an affordable price. The production value aerial video can add to a video production is massive so it is no surprise that inexpensive unmanned aerial vehicles like the Phantom series have become all the rage in the last few years.
Here at Z-Channel Films we have used aerial videography is number of our productions. For the documentary feature film we produced for DirecTV, “G.I. Jobs,” we integrated aerial video of Los Angeles captured with a DJI Phantom 3. The response we have received for these shots has been overwhelming. There is no doubt there is a certain amount of a “cool” factor that comes with that video footage, but it provided us with valuable storytelling tool that helped us engage audiences and tell that story effectively.
We have also used aerial videography in our real estate video productions. Aerial video for real estate is a no-brainer: No other tool allows for showing off a property, its surroundings, and exterior features better than aerial video can.
Since we began working with aerial video we have worked hard to stay on top of the regulations for doing so legally and safely but it has not been easy. The UAV/drone video industry has exploded so fast that the FAA has had trouble adapting their regulations to fit. What we are left with is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding.
So what exactly are the drone video rules? For a clear answer to that question we turned to Jonathan Gruber, the owner of Elite Air, a properly licensed aerial drone videography company who work with a DJI Inspire 1, one of DJI’s top-of-the-line drones. They are who we chose to work with whenever we need aerial videography because not only do they do top shelf work, but they have all the legal bases covered so we can be assured we are operating legally and, most importantly, safely. Read our interview with Jonathan below to find out exactly what you need to be able to fly and operate your drone legally.
INTERVIEW WITH AERIAL DRONE OPERATOR JONATHAN GRUBER:
WHAT LED YOU INTO DRONE VIDEOGRAPHY?
ELITE AIR: I started out as a helo/quadcopter/model airplane enthusiast so combining that passion with commercial filming operations was an easy next step. UAS and video technology has advanced quickly in the last few years. I have used full scale aircraft for filming and photography but time, cost, and aircraft performance limit application. Drone filming can be done with reduced cost and a higher level of safety. The agility, speed, and precise control you can achieve with UAS videography is unattainable with full scale aircraft.
DID YOU HAVE A PRIOR INTEREST IN FILMMAKING?
ELITE AIR: I have always enjoyed photography and capturing unique perspectives. As a commercial airline pilot I see the world from above so I am fortunate to have an “eye” for it.
WHY DO YOU THINK DRONE VIDEOGRAPHY HAS BECOME SO POPULAR?
ELITE AIR: The low cost of entry and high level of automation with the new generation of drones is unbelievable! It literally allows someone who is brand new the ability to capture amazing photos and video right out of the box.
WHAT IS YOUR PILOTING BACKGROUND AND HOW HAS THAT CONTRIBUTED TO YOUR QUALIFICATIONS TO OPERATE A UAV?
ELITE AIR: I have been involved in aviation for 15 years. I am currently a CRJ-700 Captain at American Eagle Airlines. I fly up to 41,000 ft all over the country. In addition, I stay busy with low level helicopter flying and general aviation, including: sightseeing, photography work, and agricultural surveying/pollination. I graduated from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, FL which provided a solid foundation of safety knowledge and federal requirements. As a kid I loved model aircraft and that passion developed into a love for anything that can fly! My UAS experience started as a hobbyist flying QX350s and later DJI Phantoms. I am fortunate to have extensive experience in many facets of aviation. From being 10 feet off the ground to high in the clouds my background allows me to fly safely and enjoy every minute of it.
THERE SEEMS TO BE A LOT OF CONFUSION AROUND THE LEGAL REQUIREMENTS FOR OPERATING A DRONE. COULD YOU LAY OUT FOR US WHAT THE RULES ARE? WHAT MEASURES DID YOU TAKE PERSONALLY TO MEET THE REQUIREMENTS?
ELITE AIR: If you are operating a drone as a hobbyist and your drone weighs less than 55 pounds, you need to have registered your UAV tail number with the FAA and make sure you are flying at least five miles away from any airport landing strip (for more information on do’s and don’t for recreational flying, see the resources section below).
If you are flying your UAS (Unmanned Aerial System) for commercial purposes, then the operator needs a pilot’s license, a Section 333 Exemption (which you can apply for with or without holding a pilot’s license), a Certificate of Authorization covering specific flight operations, FAA registered UAV (N tail number), written permission from any structures/buildings or people within 500 feet of the UAS operation, and in some cases approval from airports near the operating area. A commercial UAS operator is someone who is operating a UAS for hire.
Unfortunately, the regulations and requirements are constantly changing because this is such a new and unique form of commercial flight. At Elite Air Productions we developed formal checklists, safety manuals, and standard operating procedures above and beyond the FAA’s requirements to ensure a safe and efficient operation. The FAA process involves a lot of paperwork, forms, and time. The FAA is inundated with requests so approval took longer than initially expected. We just received approval to conduct UAS operations within five miles of a Class Charlie airport in the Midwest. Class Charlie airports are designated because they have an operational control tower, are serviced by a radar approach control, and have a certain number of IFR operations. This was a long process because our COA was the first request this airport received. They conducted a safety risk assessment, drafted many versions of the agreement to find the correct language, and finally gave approval five months after our initial request (these types of requests should normally take 90 days).
The approval process becomes frustrating when dealing with customer or filming deadlines. But without approval you cannot operate commercially legally.
YOU MENTION THE FAA REQUIRES THE DRONE OPERATOR TO HAVE A PILOT’S LICENSE, WHICH MANY REGARD AS EXCESSIVE. WHAT DO YOU THINK?
ELITE AIR: I think this rule is not excessive. I want every pilot to have a physical license that makes them accountable for their flight. However, I do think the rules could be modified. The restrictions are currently too high. I would hope to see the FAA carve out a new “license” or certification that will be purely for UAV pilots. UAV flying is vastly different from fixed wing or helicopter flying. UAV operators have different safety concerns but still need the knowledge of how to safely integrate into the national airspace system.
WHY IS SAFETY SO IMPORTANT WHEN IT COMES TO OPERATING A DRONE FOR AERIAL VIDEOGRAPHY? WHAT POTENTIAL DANGERS EXIST?
ELITE AIR: The direct danger drones present is damage to persons and property. Whether it be filming over a group of people or above an architectural landmark, a failure of a drone could potentially kill someone or cause major damage to property. So the risks are high and relatively new since they are not typically inherent with other forms of image capturing.
As a seasoned pilot, I know that with any form of aviation there are always risks. The goal of a pilot is to mitigate these risks as best as possible. The FAA has created their regulations to help lesson these risks by limiting operations to qualified operators and also restricting operation proximity of drones to the non-participating public. If an enterprising drone operator thinks these rules don’t apply to them or they don’t need to be followed they could create a significant safety hazard to the public. Drone operation comes with responsibility. Taking the position of “Pilot In Command” means you are responsible for the safety of people and property in your operating area.
HOW IMPORTANT IS SAFETY TO YOU WHEN IT COMES TO UAV OPERATION? WHAT SAFETY MEASURES DO YOU EMPLOY?
ELITE AIR: In any area of aviation safety MUST be the number one concern. Whenever I fly, whether it is a $30 million commercial airliner, a small fixed wing aircraft, or a $500 Phantom, I comply with standard operating procedures to ensure consistency and safe operation. I utilize checklists before, during, and after each flight along with pre/post-flight inspections to verify all equipment is working properly. At Elite Air Productions we have a designated pilot-in-command who works with visual observers to ensure the safety of our operation. We utilize direct communication along with hand signals and ensure all participants are thoroughly briefed beforehand. Finally, we always have a plan for failures and emergencies. When we are scouting locations we determine our primary take off and landing zone as well as multiple emergency landing zones. A pilot always needs to be prepared for the unexpected.
THERE ARE RUMBLINGS THE FAA WILL BE TWEAKING THE RULES THIS SUMMER. WHAT IS YOUR KNOWLEDGE OF THOSE PLANS AND HOW DO YOU THINK THEY IMPACT THE INDUSTRY?
ELITE AIR: The industry has evolved so quickly that regulations have not been able to keep up. I believe that as technology becomes more “proven” in the national airspace system the FAA will lessen the restrictions. Commercial operations of UAVs will always be regulated. I hope the FAA can develop regulations that will truly integrate UAVs. I would hope for a specialized UAS pilot license, ability to fly FPV (first person view), and night flight.
WHAT ARE YOUR RECOMMENDATIONS TO ORGANIZATIONS WHO ARE INTERESTED IN INTEGRATING AERIAL VIDEO INTO THEIR PROJECTS?
ELITE AIR: When hiring a drone operator ask for their FAA Credentials. Ensure they have all the required documents needed to legally operate. This includes a Section 333 Exemption, an applicable Certificate of Authorization, and a FAA registered UAV. There will be additional paperwork an operator needs depending on proximity of airports and other buildings. You can also verify an operators credentials through the FAA’s website.
WHERE DO YOU SEE THE FUTURE OF DRONE VIDEOGRAPHY GOING?
ELITE AIR: We are in the future now! Drones are literally everywhere. Commercially and privately, drones are being used in so many ways we never thought possible even three years ago. The future mainly relies on new regulations from the FAA. We can advance the technology exponentially but safety and regulations have to be in place. I see drones taking up a larger percentage of movie set aerial videography. UAV videography produces cleaner footage, previously unattainable perspectives, and operates at significantly lower cost. Where traditional helicopters and airplanes do 99 percent of filming I could see UAS taking at least 50 percent of that.
• The complete list of the FAA’s UAV operator requirements.
• The FAA’s do’s and don’ts for hobbyist/recreational UAV flying.
• Register your UAV.
• Learn more about our aerial videography services for Denver real estate production.