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Drones and the Future of Movies

The technology behind our unmanned spyplanes and bombers will soon help even microbudget filmmakers capture awesome overhead shots. It could also make movies a lot creepier

A UAV drone used to survey land.
Courtesy U.S. Geological Survey
October 28, 2013 2:50 PM ET

If you're a filmmaker on a credit-card budget, you probably can't afford a helicopter to take those aerial shots of cityscapes and landscapes that big-budget filmmakers use to create a sense of panoramic grandeur. But you can afford the next best thing: a flying drone camera. That's right: the same technology that allows the U.S. to spy remotely and to drop bombs from unmanned aircraft also allows you to capture killer bird's-eye-view shots for your movie.

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Drone cinematography is still in its primitive stage. For one thing, the UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) don't have much range (about a mile) and only have enough battery life for 10 to 15 minutes of flight. Plus, the built-in cameras only have 720p resolution, or medium high-definition. (That's about the quality you might get on a good smartphone.) But the latest drones also come with a camera mount so that they can hoist full HD (1080p) GoPro sports cameras. There's still the little snag that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) does not yet permit private businesses to operate drones in the United States. (Non-commercial filmmakers may use them, but only below 400 feet and in sparsely populated areas.) But the agency will begin issuing drone licenses to businesses by 2015, and Hollywood could be the first set of private users.

Last fall, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), Hollywood's lobbying arm, pressed the FAA for a waiver to allow the use for filmmaking purposes of smaller drones with less range than those used by the CIA. Waiver or no, by the end of the decade, the FAA estimates there could be as many as 30,000 public and private drones in the air, making drone manufacture into a $90 billion industry.

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In the meantime, the unmanned fliers are still primarily government-operated, usually with law-enforcement agencies at the controls, doing overhead surveillance. Naturally, individual citizens and even some municipalities are worried about the potential for abuses of privacy of having thousands of drones in the sky. It's no wonder the drone industry's lobbying arm, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) likes to play up drone applications that are primarily scientific or commercial, including filmmaking.

While drone use is still restricted here, overseas filmmakers have gotten their hands on UAVs. A prankish pair of Irish filmmakers used a drone to shoot footage of goings-on at Google and Facebook's offices in Dublin. For the conglomerate that has already made satellite photos of your house available online to anyone, turnabout is fair play says drone-wielding filmmaker Caroline Campbell. "We feel that it is no more intrusive than something like Google Street View," she told Wired. (You can watch some of Campbell's film, Loitering Theatre, here.)

As with Google Glass, it's easy, then, to imagine that the first theatrical features to make significant use of drone technology may not be the ones that exploit its use in action sequences or inaccessible locations. Rather, they'll be the ones that take advantage of its Big Brother-ish spycraft. They'll be films like the Francis Ford Coppola classic The Conversation that remind us, by cautionary example, of how little privacy we still possess.

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