Local company’s drone flight a Hollywood first


When Aerial Mob’s drone took to the sky last month, the local company made television history.

Aerial Mob flew a drone legally Dec. 15 for first time on the set of a Motion Picture Association of America production, marking a new era for filmmakers.

Treggon Owens, an Encinitas resident and the CEO of Aerial Mob, said “there was tons of pressure” to deliver great shots given that Hollywood has been fighting to allow drones on U.S. shoots for years.

Movie and TV studios favor drones for aerial footage because they’re less expensive and safer than helicopters. Not to mention, they’re nimble, letting filmmakers pull off tricky shots.

Aerial Mob, for instance, captured a close-up from the ground and then an aerial view of a forest in one sweeping take. Look for the footage to air Feb. 18 in the season finale of the TV show “The Mentalist.”

“It started out low and we got an intimate facial shot of policemen,” Owens said. “And then it swooped up about a half-block away to the bad guys getting away. We wanted to show in context how close the good guys and bad guys are in proximity to each other in a single shot.”

Owens added the forest was too dense to get such a shot via a helicopter.

Drones aren’t necessarily new for Hollywood. The technology captured a chase scene in the James Bond movie “Skyfall,” for instance. However, those productions had to go outside the country to get that footage.

“It was, quite literally, the first time many of them had seen this technology used on set,” Owens said of “The Mentalist” shoot. “Our goal was for them to walk away wanting to use this technology again.”

For years, the FAA (Federal Aviation Agency) prohibited commercial drones.

That is, until last September, when the FAA granted exemptions for six filmmaking companies, Aerial Mob included, to use drones on shoots. At that time, the agency said such drone operations don’t pose a threat to airspace users or national security.

“It’s the perfect test bed for the FAA to try out the legal use of drones,” Owens said.

To date, 13 companies are exempt, with a real estate photography company and an agriculture business earning the latest waivers.

Obtaining the exemption demanded Aerial Mob, located in Carlsbad, stop client shoots for about two months as a show of good faith to the FAA. The setback was worth it, Owens said, because the company realized it would have to work within the FAA’s rules to succeed.

“There are so many people doing it on the gray market who don’t have as many options,” he said. “At some point, you have to be legal.”

Even with the waiver, Aerial Mob has to follow quite a few regulations. Notably, its drones have to fly on closed sets. The production has to have a script. And while drones are able to follow a preprogrammed route, a technician with a pilot’s license must manually operate them during shoots, according to Owens.

Also, Owens said preparing for scenes demands completing stacks of detailed safety paperwork.

“80 percent of the job is done off set,” Owens said.

He said the demand is skyrocketing for drones in television, movies and commercials.

And drones are poised to take off in other industries.

John McGraw, a private aerospace consultant and former deputy flight standards director for the FAA, said more businesses are turning to drones, for everything from monitoring crops to inspecting bridges.

“They’re a lot safer in many cases,” McGraw said.

However, McGraw said most drone companies are currently operating without FAA approval, potentially limiting their growth.

But, he said the FAA exemptions signaled the agency is close to rolling out a draft of uniform rules for small drones.

Facing pressure from drone manufacturers, the FAA is expected to announce proposed standards in the next month or so for legalizing drones that weigh less than 55 pounds. Still, it could be around two years before such rules take effect, McGraw said.

“Regulations have been slow to catch up to the technology,” he said. He added the FAA has a tough job because it has to navigate safety concerns and other issues when crafting regulations.

Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an industry group, anticipates drone businesses could generate $14 billion in economic activity in the U.S. from 2015 to 2018. In a June press release, the group stated uniform FAA rules and training procedures, rather than individual exemptions, would unlock the industry’s potential.

In the meantime, “it’s really exciting to be on the cutting edge of this industry,” said Kate Bedingfield, spokeswoman for the Motion Picture Association of America.

The association facilitated the first round of FAA exemptions. Bedingfield said the organization would push for more filmmaking waivers when appropriate in the near term.

“There are really tremendous creative and safety benefits,” Bedingfield said.