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FAA opens the door for moviemaking drones

Drones may not seem so unusual nowadays, but they're still generally illegal for US companies to use. The Federal Aviation Administration just opened the door a significant crack, though.

Drones like this DJI S1000, which can carry a big SLR camera on a motion-stabilized rig, could get a lot more use if the FAA loosens restrictions against commercial use of the aircraft.
Drones like this DJI S1000, which can carry a big SLR camera on a motion-stabilized rig, could get a lot more use if the FAA loosens restrictions against commercial use of the aircraft. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Commercial use of drones just expanded significantly, if narrowly, with a Federal Aviation Administration announcement Thursday that it will permit six moviemaking companies to fly the craft under controlled circumstances.

Drones -- also called unmanned aerial systems or vehicles (UASs and UAVs) -- are popular among gadget fans who want an eye in the sky. Plenty of companies would like to use them for tasks like photographing real estate and monitoring crops, but the FAA has banned their commercial use except in two cases of oil-field monitoring in very remote areas.

Tuesday's decision opens the door a crack, though. The agency has been evaluating requests to permit drones in some circumstances to companies that specifically apply for permission. Legal experts believe the FAA's initial permission will in effect provide a template for others that want to apply. That could help drones expand from hobbyists to businesses and, eventually, make the buzzing aircraft ordinary rather than unusual.

The FAA isn't making it easy, though.

"The applicants submitted UAS flight manuals with detailed safety procedures that were a key factor in our approval of their requests," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement. "We are thoroughly satisfied these operations will not pose a hazard to other aircraft or to people and property on the ground."

The FAA is preparing broader rules for drones ahead of a September 2015 deadline. In the meantime, it's authorized to grant exemptions to the drone ban.

That's where the moviemaking companies come in. The six companies that won exemptions are Astraeus Aerial, Aerial Mob, Pictorvision, HeliVideo, Snaproll Media and RC Pro Productions Consulting.

The FAA still hasn't permitted many other commercial uses, including monitoring of livestock and crops, monitoring pipelines, inspecting stacks at oil refineries, planning real-estate developments and shooting news footage. It hasn't weighed in on noncommercial uses like scientific research. And it hasn't come close to approving the grand plans of companies like Amazon, MatterNet and Google to deliver goods by drone.

The exemptions are clear that the drone use will be tightly controlled. For example, HeliVideo's 38-page exemption includes 35 provisions restricting the weight, speed and flight elevation of the aircraft; requiring inspections and test flights after maintenance; requiring the operator to have a pilot's license and 25 hours of prior drone-flying experience; requiring documented test runs before actual video recording; and a restriction that people not involved with the production must be at least 500 feet away. Three days before flying, the companies have to notify the FAA with detailed plans, and if the drone flies too high or too far laterally, the operator must report it.