Eyes in the Sky
The Strong Growth of Drone Operators Working in Film & TV Production
“The way you can tell how a drone pilot is feeling is to look at his feet,” says Tim Foster, as the eight propellers of his CineStar-8 Quadrocopter chirp like a chorus of birds and start to spin. “If he’s relaxed and still, like this, it means everything’s okay. If he’s shuffling around, like this, it means something might be off. And if he starts running…RUN!”
Foster gives a hearty laugh as he maneuvers the drone off the hands of his media consultant, Dave Warner, who is serving today as a human launch pad. The Quadrocopter ascends quickly over our heads and toward the setting sun, glinting through the bare branches of trees on a crisp Atlanta day in December. Foster is calm; his feet are planted firmly.
Encouraged, I tap gingerly at the controls of the camera control unit hooked over my shoulders. The camera, a pretty standard-looking DSLR affixed beneath the propellers, pans (rather jerkily, I’m afraid—I’m still getting used to this kind of power) over the parking lot where we stand, over the red brick church beside it, over the cemetery and street beyond, then around 180 degrees so that I can see myself, standing ant-like on the asphalt. The ultimate selfie.
Foster is president and CEO of SkyFly Cinema, an aerial video production company based in Peachtree Corners, Georgia. For him, aerials began as a passion project eight or nine years ago. “We just started strapping cameras onto things,” he recalls. “Back then the technology was very rudimentary. I was playing around with it as a hobby…but I soon realized there was a need, a growing demand for this kind of stuff.”
At 61, Foster has spent most of his adult life working for financial services behemoth Primerica, for which he runs a television production company based in Georgia. SkyFly Cinema was born from a lifelong fascination with all things airborne. “This is my retirement, my 401K,” he tells me. “This is where my passion lies. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do.”
Right now, Foster operates out of a small trailer affectionately named Gertrude, which he usually stores in the church parking lot near his home. A tour of Gertrude’s interior reveals a mini kitchen, a small office and lounge space with heating and A/C, and a storage area that houses his five drones. “This is Robbie and this is Louie,” Foster says, gesturing toward two multi-colored mini helicopters. “My daughters love naming things…”
Robbie and Louie are Copterworks AF25B, highly powerful remote-controlled helicopter airframes with pitch-adjustable blades and over five years of proven reliability in the sky. Foster gets them going with a handheld starter much like those used on Formula One cars, and their twin cylinder gas powered engines can carry 35 pounds of camera and payload for up to an hour on one gallon of gasoline. Unlike the CineStar-8, these guys are almost purely mechanical, and Foster likes the fact that he can open up their tops and tinker around if anything seems off. “These are industrial machines,” he says. “The engines are really reliable.”
I ask Foster how high Robbie and Louie can fly. “A mile or so, easily,” he replies. “Almost all drones can fly beyond your range of sight. That’s what the government is concerned about right now.”
Flying Between the Lines
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the government agency that regulates and oversees all civil aviation in America, is struggling to keep up with the rapid rise of drone technology. While the commercial use of drones has been technically banned since 2007, legal gray areas and lack of enforcement have allowed many drone operators to do business anyway—often quite brazenly. Take for example the 2013 Oscar-nominated Martin Scorsese film Wolf of Wall Street, which used a drone to capture aerial footage of a rowdy pool party in Long Island, New York. This happened right in the middle of the FAA’s outright ban on commercial drones, yet there were no legal consequences.
In 2012, the FAA Modernization and Reform Act introduced Section 333, which allows drone operators to file for exemption from the FAA’s general ban on commercial drones. The first company to receive an exemption was oil giant BP, granted permission to survey an Alaskan oil field with an unmanned aircraft in June of 2014. A few months later, in September 2014, seven more exemptions were granted, all of them for television and film production companies in California.
The Hollywood exemptions were a huge win for the motion picture industry, and opened the door for thousands more drone operators to apply for—and successfully receive—permission to operate drones legally and for pay. Roughly nine percent of the first 1,000 exemptions granted nationwide were for the film and television industry, and 84 to 94.5 percent were for small businesses. At time of press, the FAA has granted nearly 2,500 petitions for exemption.
Meanwhile, for drone hobbyists—any old Joe who heads to Best Buy and picks up a flying machine—regulations had been all but nonexistent until December 14, 2015, when after years of deliberation the FAA announced a new registration rule for all small unmanned aircrafts weighing more than half a pound. “Make no mistake: unmanned aircraft enthusiast are aviators, and with that title comes a great deal of responsibility,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in an official press release. “Registration gives us an opportunity to work with these users to operate their unmanned aircraft safely. I’m excited to welcome these new aviators into the culture of safety and responsibility that defines American innovation.”
Going forward, registered hobbyists will still be required to follow the FAA’s basic safety parameters, which the agency has been pushing through a new education campaign called Know Before You Fly. The campaign is a joint effort with the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) and the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), and asks recreational drone users to fly no higher than 400 feet, to keep their drones in eyesight at all times and to avoid flying over or near groups of people, stadiums, sporting events, emergency response efforts, airports or other aircraft. Recreational devices should not weigh more than 55 pounds, and flying at night or under the influence of drugs and alcohol is prohibited.
The campaign’s new “I Fly Safe” checklist was released just in time for the holiday season, during which the FAA expects to see up to a million drones sold. With such high numbers in the sky and so few ways of policing them, officials are understandably concerned, particularly when it comes to the potential for drones to interfere with commercial airlines. So far, there have been no actual incidents in which drones have, say, gotten sucked into a jet engine, but close calls are common, and as the number of drones grows, so does the fear. As a result, the FAA has vowed to develop impact testing for collisions between manned and unmanned aerial vehicles, which are expected to commence in 2016.
Of course, there have been plenty of smaller catastrophes involving drones. A quick Google search of “drone fails” brings up a slew of incidents, from the infamous wedding video in which a drone crashes into the groom’s head to the time Enrique Iglesias sliced his finger open trying to grab at a drone in the middle of his own concert.
Privacy issues are another concern directly linked to the growing prevalence of drones. This past summer, a Kentucky man named William Merideth was arrested for shooting down a drone in his own backyard after he found it hovering over his teenage daughter as she sunbathed on the deck. In April, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed a lawsuit against the FAA over the lack of privacy protections proposed in its initial set of drone regulations, noting that drones can be “equipped with highly sophisticated surveillance technology that threatens personal privacy.”
In their first draft of proposed drone regulations, released in February 2015, the FAA alleged that questions of privacy were “beyond the scope of the rulemaking.” Whether the agency will address the issue in new legislation, expected to arrive in 2016, is unclear.
The court of public opinion, when it comes to drones, is decidedly undecided. But for the film industry, new drone technology is seen as almost entirely positive, not to mention really exciting. And for a whole crop of Georgia-based business owners like Foster, looking to fuel their aerial passions and cash in on the demand for footage, creating a more positive reputation for the little flying machines is paramount.
According to some operators, this means calling the drones, well, something other than drones. “Drones usually make people think of the military, and the first word that comes after is ‘strike,’” says William Lovett, managing director of Georgia-based airline Phoenix Air’s unmanned services department. Lovett prefers to call them “UAS,” an acronym for unmanned aerial system. Foster prefers “aerial platforms.” But nothing quite rolls off the tongue like drone, and operators have pretty much resigned themselves to this fact. A more realistic hope is simply for a chance to show people the positive aspects of drones, to illuminate their exciting potential rather than their reputation as unmanned death machines or creepy little robots that can look into our bedroom windows at night.
Drones Over Georgia
Lovett has a long history of aerial experience under his belt. For 24 years, Lovett flew helicopters and airplanes for the US Army. Now the managing director of Phoenix Air’s unmanned services, Lovett helped the company become the first airline in the nation to receive a Section 333 exemption in early 2015. While Phoenix Air specializes in all manner of aircraft, from executive charter planes to air ambulances to military jets, their newly acquired fleet of five drones has brought unprecedentedly speedy growth.
“We’ve done a lot more work in the past four or five months than we expected,” says Lovett. “We bought five aircraft, hired six people, leased a facility to help test and train our crews. It’s all moving at a great pace. We’re really excited about the development.”
With their highly professional approach and decades of experience (Phoenix Air has been in operation since the 1970s), moving into unmanned aerial systems was a smooth transition for Lovett and his team. Will Wheeler, one of the company’s certified UAS pilots and leader of their aerial cinematography department, has shot for some of the top cinematic projects in Georgia, including Dumb and Dumber To, Project Almanac, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving and Dirty Grandpa, starring Robert De Niro and Zac Efron.
“The public perception of UASs is that anyone who operates them is up to no good,” says Lovett. He hopes to turn the tide of public opinion by showing how useful drones can be. He is a proponent of using drones not just in the film industry but also as a tool for public good, from land management and wildlife surveillance to assisting law enforcement. “There is a very real opportunity here to use technology in a very positive way,” he says.
As the demand for drone technology grows, more and more local groups are entering the fray. In particular, companies that already specialize in aerial cinematography, typically through the use of helicopters, are expanding operations to include drones as well.
Michael Chase, co-founder of Atlanta-based video production company Chaselight, added drone footage to his company’s already extensive list of production services several years ago. “Helicopter cinematography has always been a part of our offerings because of the unique perspective it provides,” he says. “The UAS improves and changes that perspective and offers additional dimensions, literally and figuratively; many that haven’t been thought of before.”
Chase does not expect drones to replace helicopters altogether in the industry, helicopters are still able to fly higher, faster and further, but he does recognize the clear advantages of drones. “Our clients are trending towards UAS not only for price but for convenience,” he says. “Helicopters require that you travel to an airport, participate in all the pre-flight checklists and install special mounts for the camera, then fly to location and shoot. This could also involve trips back to refuel. A UAS eliminates the need for airport and pre-flight inspections, and camera prep are more efficient.”
Chaselight has seen a significant increase in client requests for drone videography from corporate, documentary, educational and real estate/development clients. A recent gig took them to the Louisiana bayou, where they used their DJI Inspire 1 Professional X5 to capture aerial footage of wetlands, crawfish farms and marinas for a documentary for Ambassador Andrew Young, the former mayor of Atlanta. “By shooting with UAS, we were able to access areas that may have never before been photographed, certainly not from the angles we shot from, and the footage is simply stunning,” says Chase.
Carelton Holt, president of Atlanta-based video production, photography and marketing firm Granite Digital Imaging, bought his first drone, a Yuneec Typhoon 4K, just recently after using one on a shoot. With years of aerial cinematography experience using helicopters (GDI has approximately a hundred helicopter shoots under their belts), Holt’s approach to drones has been one of cautious optimism. “We hope to be upgrading to a higher end drone in the future if the use of our current drone grows and the demand for a higher quality is there,” he says, but adds that “it is a bit of a confusing time in the aerial film landscape where the demand for aerial shots is high, but the quality of imagery is all over the place.”
Holt notes that while clients are certainly very interested in aerial images for their projects, many are concerned about “the dramatic difference in the quality of much of the drone footage out there,” as he puts it. “It definitely can stand out from the ground footage if high quality cameras and lighting are used. The cost of drones that can actually fly a camera like a RED is very expensive (not to mention the value of the camera on board) and there is still considerable crash risk.”
While Holt recognizes the value of drone capabilities, he is still not eager to trade in his helicopters. “As far as the footage goes, I am heavily partial to helicopter footage where we are able to use our RED Epic Dragon and shoot stunning 6K RAW footage,” he tells me. “Most drones are using cameras with far less resolution, dynamic range and data rate. There is considerable difference in the look, even to the untrained eye.”
Michael Hofstein, director of photography for Atlanta-based production company EuroPacific Films, is another cautious adopter of drone technology. As a veteran in the industry with an impressive 35 years of experience in production, direction and cinematography, Hofstein’s credits range from M.A.S.H. to The Mask of Zorro.
Hofstein bought his first drone, an early model DJI, four years ago, but has since backed away from personal engagement with the technology. “I would rather work with a qualified pilot whose main concentration is on the aircraft while I can concentrate on the story and the cinematography,” he says. “I so enjoy working with drones, but aerial cinematography covers a wide range of image-taking platforms, from use of Lear jets to helicopters and more recently, the use of drones. Each has a unique place in the world of storytelling. It’s up to the director of photography, the director, and the producer to understand the capabilities of each and to use the right platform when telling the story, dependent on location and budget.”
From the Fire to the Sky
One Atlanta-based drone operator who has fully embraced drones in both practice and name is Jamie Hamlin, owner and lead pilot for aerial cinematography and full-service production company Drones of Prey. Like Lovett, Hamlin expresses deep support for the FAA’s new legislation. “It’s such a breath of fresh air to get approval and finally be doing it legally,” he says of receiving his FAA exemption this past spring.
The majority of commercial drone pilots use lawyers to file their Section 333 paperwork (Foster recommends SkyGen Aviation, well-regarded in the industry as the authors of the first seven Section 333 exemptions) but Hamlin and his team decided to do it all on their own. “We wrote our own exemptions, our own operator’s manuals, all out of our own heads,” he says. “We literally had to sit there and write down everything we do from the moment we take the aircraft out of the box.”
As a result, Drones of Prey applied for and received the broadest exemption possible. They are now officially approved for aerial photography, videography, cinematography including motion picture and closed set television production, and even search and rescue operations. As their website proudly proclaims, this means their customers are guaranteed no legal hassles, a high standard of safety, and years of aviation experience. The FAA also requires commercial drones to be controlled by a licensed aircraft pilot, so Hamlin's partner Doug Bell is licensed.
For Hamlin, FAA approval is a significant step in a journey that began 15 years ago, when he first started flying remote controlled helicopters. “There weren’t’t any drones back then,” he tells me. “I started flying just because I had an interest in helicopters. As I got into it, I noticed people doing aerial photos, and thought, that’s interesting, because it gives you a really unique perspective. Think of a Google Earth view of your home, looking down at the top of your house like a map from 400 feet.”
Hamlin was even more impressed when he saw people starting to do aerial video, and he soon began experimenting with RC helicopter videography on his own. “I wouldn't say I was the pioneer, but there were just a handful of us around the world who saw what this could bring to the production world,” he recalls. “We all kind of worked together on how to make it happen. A lot of the early days were just us learning what we could and couldn't do and how to do it, and educating production companies, because at the time they'd never even heard of drones.”
Hamlin says he approached producers not with the intention of replacing other camera methods on set, but simply to accentuate them. “It was taking them six hours to set up a crane shot that we could do in a matter of minutes,” he notes.
Interestingly, Hamlin’s professional background has little to do with aviation. For many years, he worked as a firefighter. “Coming from a background of public safety and breaking into the entertainment business was very challenging for me,” he says. “I didn't know anybody in the industry and so I was just cold calling production people. We were inventing our own equipment and methods at the time, so there was no rulebook to follow, no website to send them to for reference.”
Despite the challenges, Hamlin’s business took off. He landed his first television show in 2010, a Discovery Channel program called Howe and Howe Tech about an eccentric pair of twin brothers who invent military vehicles. From there, the Drones of Prey team traveled the world, shooting everything from urban downhill bicycle races in Chile to HGTV’s Beach Front Bargain Hunt show. Prior to speaking with Oz, Hamlin had just wrapped a month of back-to-back projects that took his team from North Carolina’s Outer Banks to the cliffs of coastal Oregon to the jungles of Costa Rica.
Crazily enough, until two weeks prior to this story, Hamlin was still juggling full-time firefighter work in addition to running Drones of Prey. He’d grind out 24-hour shifts at the firehouse to earn 48 hours off, during which he focused on his growing business. “I used my time off to go to the shoots,” he says. “If I didn't have time off, I would have to swap with somebody and do a 36 hour shift.”
Needless to say, the schedule was grueling, but Hamlin says quitting his day job seemed too risky prior to receiving his exemption; he never knew if he’d get another gig or a cease-and-desist letter from the FAA. Once the exemption finally got approved, he was ready to go all in: “Now that we’re legit, I said, let’s do this. Let’s make this a full time business…and quit running into burning houses.”
That said, Hamlin is still deeply interested in public safety, and hopes to be on the forefront of getting drones into emergency and disaster scenes. While he wasn’t able to convince his superiors at the fire station to embrace the use of drone technology in fighting fires locally, he is committed to pioneering new ways of integrating drones into public safety efforts on a national level. From assessing dangerous situations to search and rescue, the possibilities are endless. “It would be so advantageous to use drones this way,” he says. “But the standard operating procedures haven’t even been written yet.”
Like any new technology, drones have equal capacities for good and for bad, depending on the intentions of their human operators. But for every drone mishap or unwanted invasion of privacy, there is a whole host of fascinating new ways in which drone technology is being used to help all over the world, from training falcons to maintaining cities to building bridges to bringing aid to war-torn countries. As technology rockets forward at a breakneck pace, the government will always be one step behind, but industry professionals are hopeful. Across the board, there is unanimous support for the FAA’s attempts to better enforce and regulate drones. “We see it as a good thing because we follow the rules,” says Lovett. “We want to keep the skies safe for everyone.”