This weekend I was fortunate enough to attend the New York City Drone Film Festival in Tribeca and appear on a panel with some of my Fox colleagues about legal issues in the drone world.  I also watched the panel on drone technology that was immediately prior to the law panel and was introduced to a truly impressive piece of technology, the Skydio R1 drone.  The R1, unlike other consumer drones on the market, is fully autonomous, meaning it flies itself and can follow you while avoiding obstacles. This had me wondering, is the world ready for this?  More specifically, is the FAA ready under the current state of regulations?

For starters, obstacle avoidance at this level is a huge benefit and something the FAA must be watching closely.  After all, if commercial operation is ever truly going to get beyond visual line of sight, it is technology like the R1 that can help make it possible.  However, as impressive as the technology is, the FAA is not going to simply trust a machine to fly itself.  And while the regulatory framework of the FAA deals primarily with commercial operations (though a recent effort by certain airline industry groups asks the FAA to regulate hobbyists and recreational use), and the R1 appears designed more for recreational use (like an expensive flying selfie stick), there are still open questions about flying and complying.

Under Section 336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (“FMRA”), recreational flying is exempt as long as it is done “in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines and within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization.”  Currently, the only organization that can make such guidelines is the Academy of Model Aeronautics (the “AMA”).  Under current AMA guidelines, autonomous flights are permitted, provided that the pilot can take over manual control of the aircraft at any time.  The R1 does allow the user to take over manual control, but what does actual “control” consist of?  How quickly must the user be able to take control in order for it to satisfy that guideline?

In one of the promotional videos for the R1, for example, it shows the drone following a person on a mountain bike.  In order for that person to take control of the drone, they would have to stop their bike, get off, take out the controller and then pilot the drone.  Is that enough control to comply with the AMA guideline?  At the festival, I posed that question to Adam Bry, the CEO of Skydio and he acknowledged that it was an interesting question, but did not have an answer.  That is because “control” in that context would need a more precise definition and maybe as more autonomous drones hit the market, that definition will come.  For now though, I want one.

Recently, several members of my Firm and I had the opportunity to speak on a panel at the New York City Drone Film Festival (“NYCDFF”) regarding legal issues and drones. Thanks to the excellent moderation of Randy Slavin, the founder of the NYCDFF, we had the opportunity to discuss several legal issues. While the presentation was directed to attendees of the NYCDFF, the discussion encompassed a fairly wide breadth of legal issues.  Among the issues discussed are the current state of drone regulations, first amendment issues, liability issues, intellectual property, drone cinematography, releases, and insurance issues. I recommend anyone who is interested to watch the video of the panel presentation. Also, if you are not familiar with the NYCDFF, I highly recommend checking it out.



The 2nd Annual New York City Drone Film Festival will be held from March 4th – March 6th 2016. The three-day event will feature a dynamic slate of interactive panel discussions, guest speakers, screenings of nominated films, and the annual awards ceremony. The festival will return to the Directors Guild of America Theater for the second year in a row.

“Just as drones have become more technically advanced and integrated into society, the NYC Drone Film Festival has experienced a year of tremendous growth,” said Festival Founder and Director Randy Scott Slavin. “We’ve expanded from a one-night event to a three-day happening. We’re holding interactive panels and seminars highlighting the influence of drones around the world. And we’ve expanded our award categories from nine to eleven. The 2016 festival is going to be bigger and bolder in every way.”

The #NYCDFF is the world’s first event exclusively dedicated to celebrating the art of drone cinematography. In its inaugural year it received over 150 submissions from 19 countries. The event sold out in five days, attracted 31 sponsors across 10 different industries, including headline sponsor NBC News, and received over 270 million media impressions. The festival offers an international platform for filmmakers from every corner of the globe to exhibit their work in front of industry professionals and the drone cinema fan community.

Drone Film


March 5th – NYCDFF SEMINARS & FESTIVAL – All events at Directors Guild of America Theater

I love drone

March 6th – DAY OF DRONES at the Liberty Science Center (222 Jersey City Blvd, Jersey City, 07305)

  • 9am -5:30pm – NYCDFF program (Playing throughout the day)
  • 12pm – 5pm – Drone Battling Expo
  • 12pm – 5pm – Invitational Drone Racing Expo with FPV Addiction


Shaken and disoriented, the young student dragged himself down a dark and empty alley in a slum of Mumbai. As warm blood trickled down his forehead into his eyes, momentarily blinding him, a voice in his head screamed “why didn’t I just hand over the stupid money…he had a knife!” As his hunched over shape materialized from the darkness of the alley, curious bystanders gathered around as he collapsed from his many gaping wounds.

Quietly hovering above the closed set and crowd of extras, a drone captured the action on film using a high quality Red One camera for an episode of Criminal Minds. As filmmakers use drones more regularly on set, they are changing the way that movies and television shows are made.

The dynamic ability of drones provides directors and cinematographers with a myriad of unique opportunities. Drones are becoming popular tools for the film industry because they allow filmmakers to create more distinctive shots quicker, safer, and cheaper.  With their ability to go where people and manned aircraft simply cannot, drones allow filmmakers to capture previously unattainable images such as overhead imagery from perspectives too low for a manned helicopter and too high for a crane.

As drone technology evolves and high definition cameras become more durable and compact, formerly difficult, expensive, and dangerous shots will become easier and more viable to obtain. This will ultimately open up new cinematic possibilities that will push innovative and creative boundaries in the industry.

The dynamic filmmaking ability and cost effectiveness of drones on TV and film sets has allowed filmmakers to minimize the use of manned helicopters, both reducing hazards and costs. Although less than 10% of all film productions currently use drones, aerial cinematography companies using drones typically cost Hollywood studios $4,500 to $8,000 a day, compared with $15,000 to $25,000 for a helicopter shoot.

While drone use in cinematography may reduce flight risk and costs, it is not without limitations. Image quality and stabilization continue to present technical challenges. Additionally, with a limited battery life, drones carrying heavy high definition movie cameras do not allow for long shoots. Furthermore, when it comes to filming high-speed action scenes, helicopters are often preferable to drones. However, as drone technology continues to improve, the future of drone filmmaking is limited only by imagination.

The FAA has jurisdiction over the use of drones for commercial purposes. Therefore, using a drone for filming without specific FAA approval violates current FAA regulations. Although the current legal and regulatory framework in the U.S. is murky, the FAA intends to issue final regulations governing commercial drones sometime this year.

Until those new regulations are issued, here are some current basic guidelines for closed set motion picture and television drone filming:

  1. Drones are not permitted to fly within 5 miles of an airport, unless written permission is obtained.
  2. The drone must weigh less than 55 pounds, including energy source(s) and equipment.
  3. The drone may not be flown at a ground speed exceeding 87 knots (100 MPH).
  4. Flights must be operated at an altitude of no more than 400 feet above ground level (AGL).
  5. The drone must be operated within visual line of sight of the drone operator at all times. All operations must utilize a visual observer.
  6. The drone operator must possess at least a private pilot certificate.
  7. The drone must remain clear and yield the right of way to all other manned operations and activities at all times.
  8. Drone operations may not be conducted during night.
  9. The drone may not be operated from any moving device or vehicle, i.e., operator must operate from a stationary position.
  10. The drone may not be operated directly over any person, except authorized and consenting production personnel essential to the close-set film operations, below an altitude that is hazardous to persons or property on the surface in the event of a drone failure or emergency.
  11. The operator must ensure that no non-participating persons and vehicles are allowed within 500 feet of the area except those consenting to be involved and necessary for the filming production. This provision may be reduced to no less than 200 feet if it would not adversely affect safety and the FAA has approved it.

If you intend to use drones for commercial filming, it is critical that you verify the drone operator you engage is authorized by the FAA and any applicable state law to operate drones. It is also up to you “to verify that such authorization is for the purpose for which you engage the drone operator.” This is an important detail because while operators may be granted an exemption to operate drones for “aerial cinematography,” there are also exemptions for other purposes not related to filming, such as aerial surveillance of pipelines, crops, and real estate.


In addition to authenticating that the drone operator has proper credentials, it is important to verify if other permits, exceptions, or permissions are needed for your specific use as mandated by the FAA or other applicable law.

It is also important to note that “just because a company has been granted an (via Section 333) exemption, that does not necessarily mean it can legally fly a drone for commercial filming purposes.” Again, it is up to you to make sure that the drone operator you engage lawfully may provide the service. Before becoming involved in drone cinematography, either on your own or through the use of another company, it is important that you consult legal counsel knowledgeable in the area of drone law.