Posted June 15, 2015 by Casey McCallister

You have been hearing a lot about them lately. Drones. The barriers to enter into this world of filmmaking are now next to nothing. Today, you can purchase a drone for less than an entry level DSLR and learning to fly it is just as simple.

What is a Drone?

The simple word brings up visions of unmanned military aircraft, but that is nowhere close to the type of machines that used for filmmaking. Drones are certainly not a new idea as RC enthusiasts have been attaching cameras to small airplanes and helicopters for years. Over the past five years, however, the technology has taken a huge leap. These systems are simple to pilot and targeted directly to filmmakers by including features like live feed and image stabilization.

Sounds fun, but all the press hasn’t been great. Are these drones actually legal? The answer is yes, but with restrictions. Currently, drones are allowed to fly both recreationally and commercially.


Recreational drone usage has the most tolerant of laws, however there are still strict guidelines. Drones can be flown recreationally no higher than 400 feet and the aircraft must remain in sight at all times. Drones should not be flown over people or moving vehicles and should remain at least 25 feet away from both. It should go without saying, but drones should not be flown within 5 miles of any airport and all flights just outside of this range should notify the airport or control tower before taking off. There are also specific areas where a drone can not be flown such as national parks and military bases. This map is a great reference for locations that drones are outlawed.

Commercial Use

Commercial usage of a drone implies that it is being used for a business or as a revenue-generating tool. Currently, commercial use of drones requires authorization from the FAA which is handled on a case-by-case basis. The FAA does offer exemptions – called a Section 333 exemption – and looks to be generous in handing them out. As of June 12th, 2015, the FAA has granted 556 exemption requests. To apply for a drone exemption, visit the FAA 333 exemption page.

Drone Use Cases

Despite the barriers, drones still have a huge role in today’s film industry. SmartShoot is seeing requests for drone-specific jobs increase each month. Many of these jobs are for real estate shoots, but we have also see wedding requests and film/cinema climb, as well.

As a response, we are populating a specific drone community which will allow our customers to browse portfolios of our hand-selected pilots. For now, we are looking to fill this page with 333-exempt drone users. To be added to this page, contact me for a review.

(Header photo by Don McCullough)

About Casey McCallister

I am an adventure and outdoor lifestyle photographer from San Francisco and the growth hacker at SmartShoot. I enjoy traveling and spending time in nature.

Keep in touch: @caseymac

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