Could Drone Use Cut Into the Helicopter Filming Business?

Some operators say with less restrictions set by the FAA, their services might be impacted.

As more autonomous flying objects become readily available to the general public, and officials from the Federal Aviation Administration start to consider loosening their grip on the restrictions for using drones for commercial purposes like filming movies, helicopter operators in Massachusetts say it could cut into the way they do business.

“I think for all of us [operators], it’s more of a question about how they separate us physically, and the financial thing is definitely a concern,” said Jeff Deitz, a line pilot and flight instructor at the North Andover Flight Academy. “I think it will eliminate a small percentage of business. But I can’t speak to how big of an impact it would be.”

Deitz’ concerns come at a time when Hollywood filmmakers have petitioned the FAA for more lax laws, calling on officials to allow production companies making big-budget movies the ability to operate the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for video and photography purposes, rather than rely on the expenses incurred using the traditional means of overhead filming, like helicopters.

According to the Associated Press, on Monday, the FAA said it’s “considering giving permission to seven movie and television filming companies” to do just that. “This new tool for storytellers will allow for creative and exciting aerial shots, and is the latest in a myriad of new technologies being used by our industry to further enhance the viewer experience,” said Neil Fried, senior vice president for the Motion Picture Association of America, the organization that has spearheaded the charge to reduce the restrictions on drone use set by the FAA.

As it stands, federal law prohibits the use of UAVs for commercial purposes, according to FAA officials. Drones are typically used for personal projects, and are not banned for use by the general public.

While the push to relinquish regulations for movie filming has stemmed from major organizations like the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), easing up on the regulations could impact the helicopter services typically used when companies come to Massachusetts to make films, a destination that has become increasingly popular over the years since the state started offering tax credits for projects based in the area.

Aerial shots and aerial photography, two of the reasons the MPAA wants access to drone use, are services that Deitz and several other local helicopter operating companies offer here in the Bay State.

While some companies are equipped with thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment for filming purposes, Deitz said the North Andover Flight Academy typically does filming using handheld cameras for smaller projects. Even so, he expects UAV use, as it increases, will make a dent in how things are typically done for movie projects. “It absolutely will impact the industry,” he said. “Jobs that used to only be done by helicopters now can be done by these drones. Any way you look at it, there’s a percentage that is going to be carved out by the niche market for these types of drones.”

Although Deitz said his company isn’t responsible for the blockbuster movies that have made use of helicopters while filming here, he was certain that those who are usually tapped to help take on the larger productions would feel the hit. “I don’t think it would eliminate too much for our customer base. Other operators in the area it certainly would, because they are on the ticket for the big Hollywood movies,” he said. “We do a lot of aerial photography with real estate and stuff like that, but even that is being undercut by guys with drones.”

But until technology vastly improves, Deitz believes the jobs done by helicopter operators and equipment will continue to outpace unmanned contraptions. “With current technology, a lot of these drone operations will be limited to a small area, where as a helicopter can cover a lot of ground in one flight,” he said. “One positive thing is that we have the range and speed that drones and their operators don’t have.”