An article by Benjamin Dewhurst at No Film School poses a good question, and points out how FAA is effectively favoring large corporate film producers while impeding smaller, independent outfits.
If there was a valid aviation reason for FAA’s actions, we could accept it. The problem is, there is no valid reason. FAA is acting only to protect financial interests, specifically the companies and pilots who make money providing helicopter support to the film industry. But, FAA’s arbitrary actions also protect FAA itself; this agency has hundreds of employees (and contract employees, too) who are pretending to stay busy with the ‘work’ of setting up regulations for low-altitude drones that have no real safety impact on larger airplanes and helicopters which can only be safely and legally flown at higher altitudes.
Most drone uses are under 300-feet altitude above ground level (AGL); safe manned flight is at or above 1,000-feet AGL for airplanes, and at or above 500-feet AGL for helicopters. If FAA really wanted to serve the larger Public, they would immediately impose a rule forcing all manned flights to minimize flying below an altitude of 2,000-feet AGL. That is, the minimum allowable altitude for cruising at level flight would be at 2,000′ AGL or higher. This would greatly reduce noise impacts, and it would provide a huge vertical safety buffer to enable quiet, low-energy drone usage at lower altitudes.
The Relative Safety of Drones vs. Helicopters
Within his article, Mr. Dewhurst states his belief that helicopters and drones have comparable safety risks. This is not correct. He notes, accurately, that drones can (and will) be used for an increasingly large portion of shots … not just for cameras, but also for lighting and other support. But it appears his assertion about relative safety ignores a vey important reality with helicopters. The most dangerous use of a helicopter is typically at low speeds, more than ten feet off the ground but less than a few hundred feet off the ground. Why? Because helicopters need a few hundred feet to recover (and prepare for a lower-risk crash landing) should their power fail. Nearly all use of helicopters for movies happens within the dangerous ‘deadman’s curve’, the low-altitude and low-speed combinations that maximize helicopter risk.
FAA has looked the other way for decades while helicopter operators do more and more risky ‘jobs’, all to expand aviation commerce. Pilots have died air-drying cherries, slinging pallets of cut Christmas trees, spraying crop fields, hovering low doing powerline maintenance, etc., … all because they lost power while they were too low to recover. The helicopter manuals warn pilots to not operate this way, but the pilots do it anyway, and FAA ignores it. To learn more, check out ‘ height-velocity diagram’ in an online search, or see this aiReform Post.
As for the relative risks of drones vs. helicopters, the only safety hazard for drones carrying a camera or lighting are small spinning plastic rotors. Helicopters are lethal due to their greater size, and far more dangerous due to their fuel load. When a helicopter crashes, the risk of fire and explosion is substantial, and there is a long history of fatalities — to helicopter occupants as well as to those on the ground — going back to the invention of the helicopter.
- Six Companies Can Now Fly Small UAS Following FAA-approved Safety Procedures — 9/25/2014 FAA Press Release
- Who Else Gets Hollywood’s FAA Drone Deal? — 9/26/2014 article at USNews.com
- Drone Flights in the U.S. — a webpage by EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation)