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Up and away: Dayton filmmaker uses drones for aerial work

These days, when Dayton filmmaker Allen Farst goes to work, he likes to bring his drone with him.

It’s a small, 12-blade helicopter, essentially a battery-powered unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), but it gets the job done — and then some.

Farst, director/executive producer of Niche Productions, works with a crew to remotely pilot the craft and its attached camera gimbal, or rotating pivot mechanism, letting him get shots he could only get previously with a full-size helicopter.

Farst took possession of what he called the “first 12-blade heavy lift drone” in the United States in December. Today, it’s a tool he has used about 10 times on everything from IndyCar races to marketing videos. For a few months, he was the only one in the U.S. who owned an the device, called the “Aerigon,” he said.

There’s nothing new about aerial shots, of course. And Farst has used gas-fueled drones before.

But helicopters are expensive.

“Because I’m more from the film world, more from high production, I was always basically chasing the $2 million helicopter shot, which we’ve done,” Farst said.

UAVs aren’t cheap, either. Farst invested $90,000 into the Aerigon. With add-ons, his investment reaches the low six figures, he acknowledged. But Niche charges some $8,000 to use the device, so Farst believes he can and will recoup his investment.

The device can lift up to 20 pounds, allowing Niche to fly its digital cinema rigs, including lens and motors, to control focus, iris and zoom.

Farst and his crew can put the Aerigon in the back of an SUV.

Niche has made safety and training films for corporate clients and has worked in website design, graphic design, aerial photography and other services.

Niche can use the UAV not only for aerial photography, but also to scan houses, buildings and city blocks to create composite 3D models that can be used in print, movies, games and apps, the company has said.

Farst’s use of the device comes as the Federal Aviation Administration announced earlier this month that seven aerial photo and video and production companies have asked for regulatory leeway that would allow the industry to use UAVs with FAA approval for the first time.

Niche is not among the companies that have sought exemptions, said Less Dorr Jr., an FAA spokesman. But Farst welcomes the FAA’s consideration of exemption requests.

Farst said today’s regulatory environment when it comes to UAV use feels somewhat heavy-handed. He said he’s careful about when and where he flies, keeping his Aerigon no higher than tree tops and well away from area airports.

“I feel like a bootlegger, sometimes,” he admitted.

He said he takes pains to be safe. His UAV crew can include up to 12 people wearing bright yellow safety vests, including municipal officials and off-duty police officers.

“The first thing is safety for us,” he said.

The FAA is aware that filmmakers wish to use the devices, but the agency’s attitude remains firmly “safety first,” a spokesman said.

“We’re not so much creating exemptions as responding to a request that the seven companies made,” Dorr said.

FAA leaders believe current law may already allow expanded use of small commercial UAVs in filmmaking, he said. But that usage would likely be in tightly controlled circumstances, perhaps a closed movie set, he said.

“Right now, you need three things to do a commercial operation,” Dorr said. Required today are a certified aircraft, a licensed pilot and FAA approval.

Why does the FAA require a licensed pilot when it comes to use of an unpiloted aircraft?

“We have taken the stance that the rules for manned aircraft apply to unmanned aircraft, as well,” Dorr said. “Hence, the request for exemptions from the rules.”

It’s not just video producers. Representatives of “precision agriculture,” utility inspection and the oil and gas industries have approached the FAA for exemptions as well.

As UAV technology develops, so does its potential uses.

“The key here is that this is an effort limited to very controlled and low-risk situations,” Dorr said.

When it comes to drone use, filmmakers generally aren’t disruptive, Farst said.

“I always say to the FAA, ‘We’re not the problem,’” he said. “Our group of people, the pro-filmers are not the problem. It’s the kids who want to go out” flying remote-control planes.

To receive the exemptions, firms must how their UAV operations are safe. And the FAA does offer waiver certificates to public entities for law enforcement, firefighting, border patrol, rescue or other public uses.

The FAA has not given any timeline for granting exemptions.

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