TAMPA — The camera swoops through downtown like a bird, over the Tampa Museum of Art, into Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, up past the buildings that make up the city’s distinctive skyline.
“Mesmerizing,” “cool,” “beautiful,” say some of the people who have helped push the online views of the video recording past 60,000.
Illegal, too, in the view of the Federal Aviation Administration, if producer Ben Bradley and his Right Hand Films try to make money from the video.
But Right Hand Films, like production companies big and small that are using cameras mounted on drones, has little to fear from the FAA. At least not yet.
Congress has given the agency until September 2015 to come up with rules for integrating commercial drones into U.S. airspace. Meantwhile, the FAA takes the position that drones must follow the same rules as model aircraft and that commercial use is against the law.
The agency is still issuing $10,000 fines, even though a court ruled it lacks authority to enforce one against a Virginia aerial photographer.
In this vacuum, lawyers are advising clients to keep filming, a new Tampa company is renting equipment to major productions, including NBC TV’s “The Blacklist,” film commissioners on both sides of Tampa Bay are urging producers to hold off, and more and more cameras strapped to unmanned aerial vehicles — drones — are taking to the air.
“I’m not breaking the law,” Bradley said. “I follow all the rules.”
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Bradley strapped a digital video camera weighing less than a pound to a 2-pound remote-controlled unmanned aerial vehicle to make the video “Tampa Aerial Drones.” He put the 2-minute, 45-second montage to music with “Love Letters” by Paper Route. It is posted at www.righthandfilms.com.
He never flew any higher, he said, than 300 feet — well below the 400-foot limit the FAA places on model aircraft and drones. The agency also limits the weight of the devices to 55 pounds.
For reference, Rivergate Tower at Ashley Drive and Kennedy Boulevard — the “Beer Can Building” — is 454 feet high, or 32 stories.
His main use of the drone, Bradley said, is recording homes from above for real estate agents to give potential buyers and renters a unique view.
Modern drones first gained public attention with the fixed-wing variety used by the military. Those used for commercial purposes, like Bradley’s, are much smaller and resemble mini-helicopters with multiple rotors. In filmmaking, the more rotors, the steadier and safer the camera will be.
Tampa-based production company Fly Habana owns 12 drones weighing 5 to 17 pounds each that it uses on productions around the world, including the “The Blacklist.”
“Unless you are James Cameron creating some new technology for a summer blockbuster, you won’t be using a drone much heavier than 34 or 35 pounds, when you add up the weight of drone, camera and battery,” said Steven Levy, founder of Fly Habana.
“And most productions, even Hollywood ones, don’t need to fly higher than 400 feet.”
Still, the 400-foot rule hurts the FAA’s case for regulating commercial use of drones, said Guy Haggard, an aviation lawyer with Orlando-based GrayRobinson.
The federal agency is charged with keeping aerial travel safe and simply lacks jurisdiction below 400 feet, he said.
“If you put a drone up to 2,000 feet, sure, there has to be regulation because you are endangering the public by being at the same altitude a plane can fly at,” Haggard said. “The minimum altitude an airplane can fly over a sparsely populated area is 500 feet and over a populated area is 1,000 feet.”
Levy said it is unclear why the FAA thinks it is OK for drones to be used below 400 feet by hobbyists but not for commercial purposes.
“I’d guess it’s because if someone was to get hurt, Congress would look to them and say you’re supposed to be governing the airspace,” he said. “The FAA has a difficult job.”
The Tribune asked the FAA, but in its email responses the agency never answered the question.
Industries of all kinds are finding uses for drones.
Farmers can water crops with them or check distant fields. Search-and-rescue teams can scan wide areas quickly. Amazon even has plans to deliver packages by drone.
All of these, according to the FAA, are illegal uses.
For film and video producers, drones have opened a whole dimension of cost-effective possibilities.
“It’s a quick way to get aerial shots I couldn’t afford to get previously,” said Jon Wolding of the Tampa production company Ground Up Films. “And they can get to those tight places a helicopter could not, or get the aerial shot without the long set-up time of a crane.”
Wolding has flown drones for personal use but is still weighing the risk of a fine for commercial use.
The FAA’s stand has frightened off some of the biggest names in the business, Levy said.
This year, Disney canceled a drone shoot Levy was hired to oversee, he said. The company was suspending all drone shoots until the FAA approves them.
The Tampa Hillsborough Film and Digital Media Commission shares Disney’s caution.
“At this time, due to the lack of FAA jurisdiction, we have no authority to issue permission for drone filming,” said film commissioner Dale Gordon. “We understand that this is a gray area, and individuals and filmmakers have and will continue to use this technology. However, our office cannot give permission to do so on public property.”
This is significant for production companies because they must apply to the film commission for permits when shooting in a public place and submit a detailed list of equipment to be used.
If a drone is listed, a permit will not be issued.
Without a permit, local authorities can shut down a production.
If a drone hurts someone or damages property, a production company’s insurer might not cover the claim unless the company has obtained the local permit.
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Fly Habana is hoping to become the first in Hillsborough to get FAA approval to use a drone and a film commission permit to do so.
The FAA grants exemptions from its drone ban on a case-by-case basis, and Levy has applied for one.
In its guidelines for seeking exemptions, the FAA requires certified aircraft, a licensed pilot and operating approval.
Levy said he has an FAA-certified pilot on set whenever a drone is used and only buys top-of-the-line models.
“We are not hobbyists but professionally trained,” he said. “We do not need the exemption to use the drones, but I think that if the FAA granted us one it would show clients that we are in a class above the rest.”
Haggard, the lawyer, said he would be surprised if a production company received an exemption.
“The FAA is taking a long time to grant any exemptions,” he said. “They haven’t granted many yet.”
Via email, the FAA said it has granted two exemptions for drone use and that they were limited to the Arctic. It did not say what the drones were used for.
“I think it is because they are understaffed,” Levy said. “And we had to write a letter, but there was no standard way to apply. I think it would be helpful for everyone if the FAA had a boilerplate application and a checklist of regulations.”
When the FAA gives Congress its proposed rules on unmanned aerial vehicles, Haggard said, they probably will include specific regulations for different weight classes and uses.
The agency is likely to take the approach of licensing companies to use drones, then leaving local jurisdictions to grant use permits on a case-by-case basis, Levy said.
In anticipation of that day, Levy is working closely with Gordon of the film commission to draft Hillsborough County guidelines.
They might include provisions such as safeguards against public liability for lawsuits claiming invasion of privacy, Gordon said.
If a drone flies by a condo tower downtown, for example, tenants may subject to being recorded. A property manager might have to OK a flyby even if the building isn’t recorded.
Gordon would also want drone operators to provide a $5 million general liability insurance policy and pay for law enforcement patrols whenever a public area has to be sealed off to protect against crashes.
“I see this as being an annual update on the federal and local level,” Gordon said.
“The problem has been that our technology is advancing quicker than our regulations can handle. It’s an exciting and difficult issue but one I know we’ll get a handle on and that will benefit the industry.”