During this year’s Traverse City Film Festival, someone was observed flying an unmanned aerial system over Front Street crowds. Earlier in the summer, EAI, LLC of Grand Rapids spent a day shooting photography and cinematography using a low-altitude unmanned system at the Grand Traverse Resort & Spa in Acme.
The presence of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) in northern Michigan’s skies is on the rise – moving beyond the traditional military applications (i.e. “drones”) the general public associates with them – into civil aviation uses such as surveying of crops and acrobatic aerial footage in filmmaking.
“We wanted to capture a greater sense of destination, and what better way to do that than a couple of hundred feet above the ground,” says the resort’s eMarketing Manager Luke Mason.
It was a two-man crew, says Mason, with one controlling the camera and the other flying the quadcopter-type unmanned system. Mason says the company has a background working with defense contractors and the resort relied on it to be following all regulations around the UAS’ use.
So where exactly does the law come down on these unmanned systems, and what's likely to come next?
The Ticker turned to Aaron Cook, director of aviation at Northwestern Michigan College (NMC), for some schooling on the rules and regulations.
Cook says it comes down to whether the unmanned systems are being used for pleasure or for profit. If the UAS is used solely for recreation – going out and flying it around for fun – that is legal, explains Cook.
However, “if you take that same aircraft for pursuit of commercial activity, then it’s essentially illegal unless you are in an approved airspace,” he says. Right now, manufacturers selling to military operations or public entities doing research and development are the two ways to legally fly the systems.
Cook says there is an argument among some operators that these systems aren’t technically flying "in the airspace," but Cook points out that hot air balloon or a helicopter could collide with them.
There is also a “fuzzy” distinction between high-end hobby level equipment and unmanned aerial systems, Cook adds.
Hobbyists and professionals alike await the Federal Aviation Administration's official opening of U.S. airspace to commercial UAS operations for aircraft 55 pounds and under, which could happen in the next 18 months, according to Cook.
“Ideas for using UAS for commercial applications will be viable,” he says. “There will be opportunities.”
And NMC is readying students for them. It is one of only a handful of colleges in the country offering UAS operator training and is authorized to fly the unmanned systems at Yuba Airport, south of Elk Rapids.
The Grand Traverse Resort hasn’t released footage from its shoot yet, says Mason, but will be integrating it into its website and in television spots very soon. He adds that they are also exploring doing both fall and winter shoots to assist its marketing as an all-season destination.