Bob Gonsalves believes in education. As a content creator working with national brands, he understands the benefits of drone videography, but he also sees how well-meaning drone pilots can create the impression of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as a menace. He founded the UAVUS not only to advocate for the use of UAVs in commercial videography, but also to educate users on best practices that can elevate the overall levels of safety, responsibility, and privacy concerns adhered to by the UAV industry. We asked him about the current legal status of commercial drone flights, the future of the industry, and what drone pilots need to get right in order to keep the industry in expansion mode.
StudioDaily: How did you become so deeply involved in drone photography, and how did that lead to the creation of the UAVUS?
Bob Gonsalves: I own a content creation studio. About a year and a half ago, we were shooting outdoors for a national outdoor products brand, and I wanted to hire a UAV videographer. When it came down to it, we found out the client's legal dept wouldn't allow us to hire a UAV videographer because it wasn't "legal" to fly commercially at that time. So we started looking into the issue. My background is outdoor products, and we found that the UAV industry right now mirrors the personal watercraft industry in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Around 1990, personal watercraft were out there, but people thought jet skis were a fad. They were on every TV show and in every commercial. Four years later, the industry blew up. People were doing donuts in front of million-dollar lakehouses and the Sierra Club was going crazy over pollution issues. We went from sexy, cool and fun to the scourge of the water, runnning up against federal, state and local regulations everywhere. The future was bleak. It looked like we could be regulated off the water. The way we addressed was saying, "Hey, look, the technology can make personal watercraft cleaner and less polluting, but we have to change user behavior if we're going to lessen the negative perception of personal watercraft." So we launched user education campaigns over a four-year period and turned things around for the industry.
When it comes to UAVs, people have been using them for years. Roto-wing helicopters and remote-control planes have been used in movies and real estate photography and other applications for years. What changed was that DJI came up with a UAV that anybody can afford. Now you've got UAVs flying all over the place, with the accompanying safety issues and privacy issues. When we started UAVUS, our idea was that the place where we can have the most impact is by focusing on the user and educating the user about general aviation and best practices and making people aware of the privacy issues. That's the genesis of the association. So I come at this not as somebody with a big desire to fly UAVs, but as a content creator who wanted to hire people who fly UAVs.
And you started to feel echoes of a situation you had already lived through 25 years ago.
Almost every outdoor product, and any motorsports product across the board, experiences the same things. You have user and non-user conflicts. That's what we're experiencing. Unfortunately, new UAV owners are their own worst enemy. It's not hard to find a video that will make you cringe.
What's the legal status of commercial UAV videography?
The rule is, according to the FAA, that to operate a UAV commercially, you have to have what's called a Section 333 exemption. And you have to apply for that exemption. The hardest part of applying for the exemption is that the FAA requires the pilot in charge of the UAV to have a private pilot's license and/or a recreation or sport pilot certification. So you need to go to flight school or hire a UAV operator/camera person to operate the UAV. So far, everybody that has received a section 333 exemption to date has said in their application that they have a licensed pilot at the controls.
Is your feeling that this requirement is too restrictive? You did acknowledge that novice UAV pilots can do some stupid things.
It is too restrictive. The FAA acknowledges that it's too restrictive. Earlier this year, the FAA actually proposed new rules for commercial UAV operation. In these proposed rules, the requirement to have a license is going to go away. We are not expecting the FAA to come out with its final ruling until late 2016 or 2017. But we fully expect that the private pilot license requirement will go away and, instead, the UAV operator will probably be required to take some sort of modified pilot's written test.
So you're expecting that a hands-on component, where an applicant has to show competency in drone flight, will not be a requirement?
A practical, hands-on requirement is not included in the proposed rules at this time.
Given that the restriction is expected to go away, are people honoring the restriction, or are they skirting around it, figuring that it wil be legal eventually?
What's changing is that the customers are becoming a little more informed. More and more clients are asking our members, the UAV operators, whether or not they have a Section 333. In a lot of cases they won't hire someone who doesn't. So the industry, and UAV operators, are in a holding pattern. You don't have a lot of choices: you can go to flight school and become licensed or certified, you can hire somebody who is licensed or certified, or you can wait this out. Well, there is another option. You can try to fly under the FAA's radar.
When the exemptions were first granted, there was a trickle of companies receiving them. Have the numbers increased greatly?
I don't know what the number is now, but it's in the hundreds. They're announcing approved exemptions almost weekly. And a lot of these UAVs that are being approved are for people flying the $1200 DJI UAVs. It's not a rarefied community, but the difficulty is the pilot licensing requirement. The FAA has added a summary approval process to fast-track the exemptions. If your application mirrors that of an application that has already been approved, the process goes much smoother. So our members are looking at successful applications that have already been approved, writing applications that mirror those, and submitting them.
So once the requirement for pilot's certification goes away, it seems like we could see a real explosion in this segment of the industry.
That is what I'm expecting.
What misconceptions do people harbor about drone flights?
From our members? These are people who want to fly commercially, and are staking their future livelihoods on this endeavor. They are willing to spend money on training, put in hours at the controls of UAVs, and practice, practice, practice. So there are not a lot of misconceptions on the commercial side. There may be an illusion that the small UAVs are easier to fly than they actually are. There is definitely a learning curve to operating a UAV, and the only thing that's going to get you over it is practice.
There are guidelines, too, for what you are and aren't allowed to do — for instance, you must stay within line of sight of your UAV, and you can't fly over 400 feet.
As a photographer or videographer, 400 feet is really high. We did a poll of our members — these are people who fly for studios, etc. — and almost 95 percent of those who responded said they operate below 200 feet, and the vast majority of them operate from under 80 to 100 feet. For videography and cinematography, the shot isn't at 400 feet. The shot could be at 20 feet, 30 feet. Think of a UAV as an aerial jib. If you were shooting for a commercial, I'd be shocked if you were over 40 or 50 feet.
What are some considerations that you need to make to ensure that your drone flight doesn't have an unhappy ending?
Similar to commercial videography, where it's all about pre-production, when you're flying a UAV, it's all about mission planning. The one thing you don't want to do is become complacent and think there's such a thing as a routine UAV flight. Regardless of what you're doing, there's nothing routine about it. If I hired a production video crew, we would do a site inspection, we would storyboard, we would find out what's in the vicinity of our location, all those things. That's what you have to do as a UAV videographer. Pre-planning is everything. Getting the right permissions. Being intuitive in identifying potential hazards. You want the best, but you've got to plan for the worst-case scenario. You have to think about weather, wind, traffic and inadvertently invading somebody's personal privacy. You've got to be aware of temporary flight restrictions from the FAA. Are you within five miles of an airport? There are a lot of things you need to take into consideration.
You mentioned privacy issues, and I was wondering about that. Videographers and photographers in general are pretty well-versed about when subjects have a right to privacy. Do the considerations become trickier when the camera is in the air, rather than on the ground?
That is where videographers and photographers really take the lead. They understand privacy issues and the need to get talent waivers signed. That is where we stand out as an industry, because this is what we do for a business. If a videographer or photographer takes that same thinking and applies it to the UAV, they're going to be pretty good to go. A lot of the privacy laws on record right now are very specific to police and law enforcement using UAVs for surveillance. However, there are several proposed laws in some states where privacy issues could become a concern, because the writing of the law is so vague. As a rule, get permission. If I'm flying in an area, say I'm doing a real estate video, the first thing I'm going to do is contact all the houses around the perimeter of the property I'm shooting and let them know in advance what I'm doing. The key is telling people what you're doing in advance. Most people are fine with it. You just don't want to surprise them with a drone flying around outside their window.
How do you see the technology evolving? DJI has started building drones with an integrated camera, and GoPro is designing its own drone. How will all of those all-in-one models affect the market for bigger systems that can fly a Red Dragon or an ARRI Alexa Mini?
I think you're going to see a mix. A lot of UAV operators have a need for more sophisticated imaging. I would consider them the top tier of UAV operators, flying UAVs that could easily be $100,000 UAVs with a $60,000 camera. But for things like utility inspection, real estate video, or videos that are going straight to YouTube on behalf of a brand, you could get away with a UAV operating a GoPro Hero4 Black. If the resolution is great and the video is only appearing on YouTube, why not? So it will be a mix. The DJI Phantom or 3DR Solo would be your consumer UAVs. You might step up to the DJI Inspire 1, which is a $2,800 UAV, and that's your prosumer gear, the bottom line of pro. And then you jump up from there to $7,000 and above.
You're one of the judges for the Interdrone Film Festival. What are you going to be looking for? And I guess the question behind that question is whether there are drone cliches that you think filmmakers would do well to avoid?
I'm going in there without any preconceptions. And no, I won't say that there are too many cliches right now. It's not "drone video." It's video. It's a video production using a drone as a tool. I don't see any cliches or anything like that—other than if you go on YouTube you'll see horizon shots set to bad music.
Sunsets and dubstep? Maybe those are the cliches.
You're storytelling. Tell a story with the video. You're trying to emote and evoke. You do all of the things that you do anywhere else — the UAV just offers a new perspective that you can't get any other way.
Bob Gonsalves is executive producer at content creation studio and consultancy ICBM Media, specializing in brand journalism and owned media, and founder and CEO of the U.S. Association of Unmanned Aerial Videographers.
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