While drone shots have become very much part and parcel of many productions, owning and operating the vehicles legally is becoming an increasing legal burden and the economics of being a specialist drone operator are looking less attractive by the month. Have we already passed peak drone?
It has been approaching two years since I received my coveted permissions from the UK CAA so that I could carry our commercial aerial work using a drone legally. To achieve this took a not insignificant investment in time and money. But now I am having second thoughts. Could one of the most significant freedoms in cinematography now be strangled out of existence?
On the surface, it would seem that the drone industry is going from strength to strength. Well, at least DJI is. With new models being released in a seemingly continuous cycle, there is clearly a market hunger. The Phantom series, for example, just keeps getting better and better. Now with much higher bitrates than previous versions, decent quality video and high-quality stills are now much more possible. The Mavic and Karma have made such gear truly portable.
The Inspire series has also taken great strides. The Inspire 2 is an incredible piece of engineering. For around £10k it is possible to purchase an aerial camera system that gives close to Alexa quality results. This would be amazing for a traditional ground-based camera, let alone an aerial system as sophisticated as this one.
But what of the commercial viability of obtaining your legal permissions now? With many countries now employing a similar system to the UK’s CAA, it is a good time to ask. In the UK, the list of approved and active operators is now up to 2791, and it rises year on year.
Some of these are hobbyists who want to make a sideline to their hobby. Others are pilots who have qualified in-house in their respective companies. Even so, the number is still high, given that the demand for aerial work pales into insignificance compared with the demand for traditional video production. Whatever service you offer with your Phantom, the chances are that your potential client either already uses someone else, or knows someone they could use.
When it comes to specialist applications, such as building inspections, quite regular work can be up for grabs, although much of this work has been mopped up by a select few companies, or it is now carried out in-house.
But when it comes to video production, aerial-based platforms have bit of a problem. Most of the time the air-based shots might only consist of a very small percentage of the full edit and they are for the most part ‘vanity’ shots. Hence the reason why people such as myself have the drone as part of our normal production service. It doesn’t make any sense to pay extra for a third-party company to come in to obtain a couple of beauty shots and persuading the client that it would be worth it is a pretty hard sell. As part of a normal filming day, we can charge for the extra planning time, risk assessment, land permissions etc. But that’s about it. A drone is now just part of the filming kit, just like a jib or a slider. But unlike those other pieces of equipment, a drone is also an administrative burden!
There are some types of filming that only a drone can achieve well. Long tracking shots of cars, boats and other vehicles, building complex overviews, etc. But these types of shoots are quite rare. So the question remains, is the burdensome and costly admin and insurance of retaining a drone really worth the effort? Even more so in the face of the reality that drone shots generally do not have any wow factor anymore. Just like any camera system, spectacular drone shots need to be creative or be of incredible subjects. Otherwise, they are simply workhorse shots like any other.
Regulations currently require that we have to log all fights, and renew permissions each year, keep flight currency, update our ops manuals and pay for costly yearly insurance. Apparently, the CAA is now so overloaded with submissions that it is moving to increase the price to submit applications, and potentially charge large amounts for other aspects of ops manual modifications and additional qualifications such as night flying. Currently, they ask for operators submit renewals three months prior to the due date to ensure continuity. That is quite an indictment of how much pressure and workload they are under.
It is a state of affairs that is potentially easily solvable from an admin point of view. An ops manual, for instance, is a company document and I have never been totally clear why the CAA requires this. After all, the CAA only really needs to know if we have the relevant knowledge of air law, that we are safe and competent to fly, have relevant insurance and our flight skills are current. Much of this administrative burden on the CAA could be relieved if the requirement for an Ops Manual was taken away, and renewals moved to at least a bi-yearly period. After all, not even pilots of real aircraft need to renew on a yearly basis!
As it stands, for the amount of use many drones get in actual commercial operations, the current requirements really do lead me to question the viability and effort involved.