The MQ-9 Reaper is an unmanned aerial vehicle developed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems in 2001. At around $56.5 million apiece, they boast a 10,500-pound takeoff weight limit that most often is largely taken up by weaponry in the class of the AGM-114 Hellfire II air-to-ground missile.
Thanks to their deadly presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are, in effect, what we have come to know as the definition of the dreaded “drone.” The term alone calls to mind NSA-style privacy invasions, aerial assaults, and much worse, our perception clouded by the often nefarious purposes to which the technology has been applied. But for Max Tubman, the drone is just the next step in the evolution of his bag of cinematic techniques.
“People get upset because there instantly is the connotation that it can’t be good,” he says. “There’s the image that drones have to be spying or shooting or destroying something, which sucks because it’s a cool word.”
It also is increasingly the focus of Tubman’s Steam Machine Pictures, a film production outfit run out of his South Philly home that these days has the man himself, more often than not, on the business end of a quadcopter controller. For whatever negative connotations we associate with the term “drone,” it hasn’t stopped institutions like the Parks and Recreation Department, Mural Arts, or the Philadelphia Zoo from contacting Tubman for some drone work.
Viewing the footage, it’s easy to see why. There is an enveloping, peacefully dreamlike quality, perfect for displaying, say, the zoo’s elevated animal trails, or the beauty of the Wissahickon trail. The movement allows for dynamic, close-up shots that otherwise would not be possible under certain conditions. And, not only that, but it can be done relatively cheaply, quickly, and with fewer people than full-size helicopters or other, more bulky filming rigs.
Tubman’s drone, of course, is many magnitudes smaller than the MQ-9, and equally less deadly. Its weight limit stands at 30 pounds all told, the Hellfire missile bays replaced with a maneuverable head capable of carrying cameras as large as a Red EPIC. Repurposed and adapted to civilian life, Tubman moves the drone from an implement of destruction to one of creation—a place, perhaps, where the technology should have been all along, given the response Steam Machine has seen.
“It’s an exploding industry, and lots of people are trying to buy in,” Tubman says. “There have been lots more jobs this year for me than last year, and we’re only halfway through.”
Tubman’s experience, in fact, mirrors a national trend. As camera technology gets lighter and drone technology becomes more efficient and more affordable, both major Hollywood production houses and small studios alike are finding room in their budgets and schedules for UAV filming.
But, unlike with the proliferation of the MQ-9 Reaper, commercial drone filming’s development has come with some trepidation—primarily because it is technically illegal under Federal Aeronautics Administration regulations. Still, though, it is a multi-million dollar industry today, with films like The Wolf of Wall Street featuring some drone work along with more traditional filming methods.
“This is all stuff people have been doing for years,” he says. “But now that it’s an industry, people are concerned.”
Oddly, though, the FAA—despite being tasked with regulation—doesn’t seem all that concerned. We still are waiting on commercial drone-related rules that the FAA has been working on since 2011, and, most recently, the administration decided to possibly exempt seven Hollywood production companies from current rules regarding commercial drone photography. However, the exemptions would be for those companies only, and only on “tightly-controlled, low-risk operations”—AKA movie sets.
Any concrete set of rules for your average Joe filming for commercial purposes with a rig 55 pounds or under likely won’t come about until next year. The resulting legal climate around the commercial drone issue is, to say the least, murky, leaving many production companies to operate in what Tubman prefers to call a “grey area.”
“I’m trying to stay within the bounds of the law while at the same time advancing my fleet and skillset so I can go full force when the regulations develop,” he says. “But there are so many companies doing it on a larger scale that if you stay under the radar, you should be fine.”
In some ways, he means that literally. FAA rules for hobbyist helicopter pilots have a few stipulations, including flying at an altitude of less than 400 feet, flying only within line-of-sight, and not flying over crowded areas or near airports. Common sense for the most part, but how common that sense actually is likely will diminish as drone filming’s popularity increases. Which, of course, is what makes the FAA’s continued waffling on the issue that much more of an oversight.
“I tell clients that if they think hiring a pro is expensive, just wait until they hire an amateur,” he says. “The challenge moving forward will be knowing the difference between someone who knows what they’re doing and someone who doesn’t. I support regulation because I’m worried about amateurs hurting someone.”
A valid concern, considering that, at last year’s Great Bull Run in Virginia, a falling drone injured more people than the bulls involved. More recently, an Australian athlete was injured in a drone accident that produced “a river of blood” when a UAV filming the race suddenly fell to the ground. Minor, compared to the 2,400 drone deaths under President Obama’s program overseas in the last five years, but, regardless, something to worry about.
Still, though, for Tubman, the potential legal and safety risks are worth the footage he is capable of getting. After all, today’s video consumer is a sophisticated animal, which only makes video drones all the more necessary.
“To me, these are the best shots—you think you know how they’re doing the shot, but you have no idea,” he says. “It’s hard to impress people these days.”