The commercial use of drones in American skies took a leap forward on Thursday with the help of Hollywood.
The Federal Aviation Administration, responding to applications from seven filmmaking companies and pressure from the Motion Picture Association of America, said six of those companies could use camera-equipped drones on certain movie and television sets. Until now, the F.A.A. has not permitted commercial drone use except for extremely limited circumstances in wilderness areas of Alaska.
Put bluntly, this is the first time that companies in the United States will be able to legally use drones to fly over people.
The decision has implications for a broad range of industries including agriculture, energy, real estate, the news media and online retailing. “While the approval for Hollywood is very limited in scope, it’s a message to everyone that this ball is rolling,” said Greg Cirillo, chairman of the aviation practice at Wiley Rein, a law firm in Washington.
Michael P. Huerta, the administrator of the F.A.A., said at least 40 similar applications were pending from companies beyond Hollywood. One is Amazon, which wants permission to move forward with a drone-delivery service. Google has acknowledged “self-flying vehicle” tests in the Australian outback.
Flying-Cam, a filmmaking company, on a movie set in Dunhuang, China. Its application for a waiver to use camera-equipped drones on certain movie and television sets is still under review. CreditFlying-Cam“Today’s announcement is a significant milestone in broadening commercial use,” Anthony R. Foxx, secretary of transportation, told reporters in a conference call.
Under the six waivers granted on Thursday — a seventh, for a company called Flying-Cam, is still under review — the companies can use camera-equipped drones on outdoor movie and television sets that are closed to the public. The equipment must be inspected before each flight, fly no higher than 400 feet and be operated by a technician with a pilot’s license. The F.A.A. must be notified of filming.
Night use is prohibited, at least for now.
Some aviation-safety advocates and other watchdog groups have opposed the waivers for Hollywood, worrying about air traffic situations like drone crashes in populated areas. Privacy has also been a concern. Mr. Foxx said on Thursday that he determined that the waivers did “not pose a risk to national airspace users.”
Studios like Sony Pictures Entertainment and Paramount Pictures have already been using drones in overseas shoots for movies like “Transformers: Age of Extinction” and “Skyfall.” Filming in Bulgaria, Millennium Films and Lionsgate recently used a drone-mounted camera for portions of “The Expendables 3.”
Studios, battling a severe slump at the domestic box office, are looking to unmanned flying cameras to create ever more dazzling footage. Hollywood has also cited significant cost savings from foregoing helicopter filming and improved safety; three people were killed last year when a helicopter crashed while filming a Discovery Channel show. Studios also say drone filming will keep production at home.
“By creating a climate that further encourages more movie and TV production in the U.S., today’s decision also supports job creation,” said Christopher J. Dodd, chairman of the Motion Picture Association. Mr. Dodd, a former senator from Connecticut, added that the decision was “a victory for audiences everywhere as it gives filmmakers yet another way to push creative boundaries.”
The six film companies receiving approval are Aerial Mob, Astraeus Aerial, HeliVideo Productions, Pictorvision, Snaproll Media and Vortex Aerial.
Among major companies, Amazon has perhaps been the leading proponent of drone use, but it is far from alone. On Friday, the German logistics company DHL is expected to begin using a drone to deliver supplies to residents of the island of Juist. It is the first time such a device has been authorized for regular use in Europe, the company said.
And entertainment companies are racing to use drones in more than the movies.
Cirque du Soleil, the Canadian operator of acrobatic shows, on Monday released a video that explores storytelling on stage using drones called “quadcopters.” The video depicts an electrician surrounded by 10 drone-powered floating lamps; he then appears to conduct their movement in the air — a bit like the way Mickey Mouse interacts with the dancing brooms in Disney’s “Fantasia.”
In August, Disney applied for three drone patents related to outdoor theme park shows. Based on the applications, the company appears to want to use drones to fly projection screens into the air and to move huge marionettes. The company, which has declined to comment, submitted an example of a flying version of Jack Skellington from “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”