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This use of drones for civilian purposes is on the rise. We say this even though it is illegal in the United States to operate a drone for commercial purposes. That is the position of the Federal Aviation Administration, which is in charge of protecting U.S. airspace. The film industry has decided to put drones to work anyway. NPR's Aarti Shahani reports.
AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: It's 4:45 a.m. in Southern California.
JEFF BLANK: This is pretty normal for us. It's pretty normal. People and directors are chasing the sunrise shot.
SHAHANI: Meet drone operator, Jeff Blank and his cousin Andrew Petersen. They recap their very busy week.
BLANK: We got to do a Kawasaki job and then we're gearing up for a feature film tomorrow in L.A. and then taking off to Utah for a little filming on the Bonneville Salt Flats.
ANDREW PETERSEN: For Hyundai, yeah.
BLANK: Yeah, with Hyundai.
SHAHANI: These guys Blank run a family business called Drone Dudes. Companies pay them to fly drones with video cameras into the air to get footage for movies and commercials. It's a hot new service in the world of aerial cinematography. Right now, we're in the lobby of a quaint little inn off the highway. Today's clients, Pacific Sunwear, the clothing store that's in a lot of malls just walked in.
BLANK: Clifford? How's it going? Jeff.
SHAHANI: The film crew heads out to a big white van with the words Drone Dudes stenciled in big black letters. They load their gear and take off for the film set. This drone-for-hire operation is illegal, according to federal regulators who say that with very few exceptions, drones cannot be used for business until guidelines are in place for air safety and privacy.
But drones are so cheap and easy to use, the filmmakers won't wait.
BLANK: Stop, stop, stop, good, good, good, good. Money.
SHAHANI: The director for today's commercial is Phillip Lopez. He tells the Drone Dudes where to move their drone through these massive rolling hills and thick fog. The drone's remote control give the command to start. With a camera strapped inside, the drone zooms up into the air, zips through trees, dives down to the ground and zooms back up again.
It's chasing a model on a motorcycle who's supposed to be looking good and these quick maneuvers can happen because of big leaps in sensors that self-stabilize to fix the camera lens and copter position. Rivera is ready for take two. He tells the Drone Dudes to show off, give the model a haircut, so to speak.
PHILLIP LOPEZ: Whatever it is that gets us as close as possible, don't care. I just really want to push the levels here and as close as possible.
SHAHANI: Clifford Lidell with PacSun says it's his first time hiring a drone. He could have used a helicopter, but that takes more money, permits, gasoline, and it makes more noise. The only downside with a drone is it's banned in national and state parks. Try to use one there and...
CLIFFORD LIDELL: The fines are just ridiculous. We actually had to find private property where you kind of dance around this little gray area that's being controlled right now by what seems like blanket legislation.
MARK BOLANOS: Whatever they're doing is between themselves and their client.
SHAHANI: Officer Mark Bolanos is with the Los Angeles police department.
BOLANOS: And it's more of an underground operation now I think.
SHAHANI: Hollywood wants to use drones, but if you ask for a permit, you'll get denied. So people don't ask and don't tell. Federal regulators recently tried to fine a company in another state for using a drone. The transportation court struck down the $10,000 fine. And as soon it happened, Bolanos says, industry lawyers jumped on the phone with the LAPD to figure out if commercial drones were suddenly legal.
BOLANOS: I think it happened that day, or the day after. It was almost instantaneous.
SHAHANI: LAPD decided it's not legal yet and federal regulators get to have the last word. But Officer Bolanos has a tinge of sympathy for all the filmmakers who want drones.
BOLANOS: It's a viable tool for what they do. They want to comply with the law. I think most people want to do the right thing.
SHAHANI: So they want to comply with the law, but right now, the law's not convenient so they're not complying with it.
BOLANOS: That's probably a fair summary, yes.
SHAHANI: While we all want great films, the Federal Aviation Administration says it has to think about our safety first. Aarti Shahani, NPR News.