The Hazards of Drones and Other Remotely Piloted Aerial Cameras When Working as a Stand-In

It may not be long before television and film stand-ins find themselves involved in camera setups that involve drone photography.

With the recent introduction of FAA exemptions permitting drone photography in television and film, it is only a matter of time before accidents happen on set involving drone photography.

Stand-In Central hopes that these accidents do not involve stand-ins, who may be the first subjects photographed using this dangerous and unpredictable camera equipment.

This post addresses the hazards and concerns of drone photography in television and film production — especially as they relate to stand-ins — and it offers safety recommendations for stand-ins as well as their union SAG-AFTRA should they and their members find themselves involved in the setup of drone photography.

Recent FAA Regulations Regarding Commercial Drone Photography

In September 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued exemptions to six companies to use remotely piloted aircraft (unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS) for television and film production. Until then, the commercial use of what are commonly referred to as “drones” for filmmaking in the United States was prohibited.

By April 9, 2015, the FAA had granted 137 exemptions for the commercial use of drones, of which a considerable number were for aerial photography for motion picture and television production. By April 17, 2015, that number was up to 189 exemptions, and by April 23, 2015, 224 exemptions — implying a rapid increase in exemption requests to use commercial drone photography and the fast pace at which they are being authorized. (Click here for the current list of authorizations granted for commercial UAS use.)

Safety Concerns Implied by the FAA “Summary Grant” Process

Given the rapid increase of exemption requests, the FAA has recently turned to a “summary grant” process in order to expedite the authorization of exemptions. As a foundation for using a summary grant process, the FAA has seen that exemption requests often fall into one of these two categories: aerial data collection and film/television production. While the FAA insists it reviews each application individually, if an exemption request is similar to a previous request that was authorized, it may also summarily grant the present exemption based on the request’s similarity to a past request.

The implication of having a summary grant process is that special, critical details regarding an individual film/television production exemption request may be overlooked in the interest of expediting the authorization process for commercial drone use.

The further implication is that harm may come to stand-ins should they be involved with drone photography setups by production companies receiving a summary grant. That is, if a film or television production company is given a summary grant rather than appropriate individual scrutiny of its exemption request, critical safety issues may be overlooked and put stand-ins in jeopardy during drone photography setups for that production company.

The FAA maintains that it is primarily interested in safety. However, a summary grant process invites potential safety concerns in the authorization of exemptions for commercial drone photography and along with those concerns a vulnerability to stand-ins working on productions using drone photography.

Safety Concerns Implied by the FAA “Blanket” Authorization Process

For less ambitious uses of drones in commercial photography, production companies that requested an exemption may receive a “blanket” Certification of Authorization (COA) from the FAA. For these blanket COAs, the production company must fly at or below 200 feet and meet a small selection of additional parameters.

Providing these blanket COAs helps to “streamline” the authorization process for exemption requests. But just as the summary grant process implies compromised safety reviews, perhaps the “streamlined” process to provide blanket authorizations is more suspect. In both cases, a thorough review of safety is presumably diminished in the interest of processing the growing number of exemption requests.

Stand-ins may be made especially vulnerable on set in a drone photography setup by a production company receiving merely a “blanket” authorization for drone photography and not a more careful review of its exemption request. As will be demonstrated later in this post, a drone operating at any height is a danger to stand-ins.

Safety Concerns Regarding Aircraft on Set

Drone photography is a relatively new process, and since it is new, all potential safety issues with respect to drone photography are as yet undetermined — nor have safety regulations been outlined and clarified.

Accidents on set involving aircraft do happen and have had very serious consequences. In an article on the recent approval of commercial use of drones, Deadline reported that:

Since 1980, 33 film and TV workers — nearly one a year — have been killed in helicopter filming accidents around the world, including 14 in the U.S. and 15 more in accidents by American companies shooting abroad.

Notably, in 1982, on the set of the film Twilight Zone: The Movie, performers Vic Morrow, Myca Dinh Le, and Renee Shin-Yi Chen were killed when a helicopter flying too low was blasted by a powerful pyrotechnic and went off course, crashing into the actors, decapitating two and crushing the third. Footage depicts the accident.

Twilight Zone: The Movie Accident Footage (Viewer Discretion Advised)

Twilight Zone: The Movie Accident Documentary (Viewer Discretion Advised)

Drone Accidents

While drones approved for flight under the exemptions may only weigh up to 55 lbs., they are just as capable as helicopters of causing serious bodily harm or death.

Roman Pirozek was killed when his remote control helicopter struck him and cut off the top of his head. The photo below shows the size of the lethal remote control helicopter.

Twitter Photo of Drone Accident Aftermath

Aleeshia and Clayton Groomals were hit by a quadcopter during the production of their wedding video, when the quadcopter flew into the couple rather than above it. Clayton Groomals received a cut on his head and cheek from the accident.

“Drone Hits Groom”

While those accidents may be seen as the result of human error, unpredictable environmental factors may play a role in drone accidents. In the following video, a hawk attacks a quadcopter in flight, causing it to plummet rapidly to the ground.

Hawk Attacks Quadcopter

Apparently the hawk attempted to attack the quadcopter on another occasion, suggesting that bird strikes may be appreciable threats when it comes to drone photography — meaning drones are a dangerous hazard especially for those below the drone.

Hawk Attacks Quadcopter, Part Two

Compilations of “drone fail videos” drive home the dangers of drone photography, demonstrating not just how quickly situations can deteriorate when shooting with drones, but also the serious property damage and injury that can result from collision with a drone. These drone fail compilations also show animals attacking drones that got too close.

Drone Fail Compilation #1

Drone Fail Compilation #2

Drone Fail Compilation #3

Drones may shoot from above, beside, around, and below their subjects, as well as sweep into and away from them. Drones may shoot from afar, or they may shoot very, very close. Obviously, the cinematic potential of drone photography has been demonstrated and experimentation with the medium will continue to unfold, with FAA approval. This means that sooner or later stand-ins will work around drones, and sooner or later there will be an accident on set involving drones.

Safety Recommendations When Working around Drone Photography

Because of the threat in working on a set that uses drone photography — obvious and potentially grave — Stand-In Central offers for serious consideration by the television and film industry the following recommendations for adoption and adherence when working around drones.

In this era wherein safety is of utmost concern on set — brought to industry light after the death of camera assistant Sarah Jones and injury of several other crew members during production of the film Midnight Rider — we hope these safety recommendations will not be taken lightly by the industry.

Unfortunately, if these safety recommendations are passed on to crew members, we do not expect they would be equally passed on to stand-ins, no matter how much we hope they would. As we have pointed out in earlier posts on Stand-In Central, stand-in safety can be overlooked and stand-ins are not really crew members but more like quasi-crew members not given the same treatment as full-fledged crew members.

So, we make a point in this post to emphasize the stand-in perspective when working in setups involving drone photography so that stand-ins may be informed where production fails to inform them, and so that the industry is aware that stand-in safety, while important, may be overlooked in the protection of crew members.

Update 4/30/2015: The Safety section of the SAG-AFTRA website links to Safety Bulletins hosted on the website for the Contract Services Administrative Trust Fund (CSATF). Item #36, currently under review as of this update, is tentatively titled “Guidelines for Miniature Remote-Controlled Camera Helicopters.” It may be of future use to stand-ins working in camera setups involving drones and interested in their personal safety.

Here are some general safety recommendations when working in and standing in in scenes filmed by drones and other remotely piloted aerial cameras.

Never Trust the Drone (i.e., Distrust the Drone)

Given that drones are technology relatively new to the industry and have only recently been approved for commercial use, we advise keeping an eye on the drone and never absolutely trusting your safety in its vicinity when standing in, no matter what crew members may tell you about its safety. Instead, distrust the drone and your safety around it. By such distrust you will remain on your toes should the conditions involving the drone rapidly change.

Drones are not invulnerable — quite the opposite. Drones are vulnerable. Weather, wind gusts, animals, flying debris, and other drones are just a small number of possible threats to drones that could cause them to malfunction and send them flying through the air at high speed and plummeting from the sky in a split second.

Therefore, working around drones is a hazard.

Request a Hazard Adjustment When Working in the Vicinity of a Drone

A drone may be seen as a potentially lethal flying projectile. Drones are not necessarily lightweight; on set they may be approved to weigh up to 55 lbs. They may be approved to fly up to 500 feet in the air. They may even be approved to fly up to 100mph. (Click here to see other proposed regulations.) Flying through the air or dropping from the sky from a considerable height of any weight makes drones extraordinarily dangerous to those around them and below them.

There may be no safe place to go should conditions around the drone become dangerous given that drones may fall straight down, have a trajectory, or even fly underneath cover. There is perhaps no “safe distance” from drones given their travel capacity. Put another way, there is a wide hazard zone when working around drones.

That said, we recommend stand-ins request a hazard adjustment when they are asked to work or hold in the hazard zone of a working drone, and we recommend that the union (SAG-AFTRA) back that request for a hazard adjustment when working or holding in the hazard zone of a working drone. An “adjustment” is an amount of money added to the stand-in’s base rate for the day. An adjustment is different from a “bump,” which is a lump sum added to the stand-in’s check. The adjustment means that the stand-in is working at a higher hourly rate for the day.

Union stand-ins currently work in film and television for $14 more per hour when working in rain or smoke conditions. A hazard adjustment for working around drones would need to be significantly greater than $14/hour given the significantly greater risk working around drones.

Carry a Protective Shield When Standing in in Drone Shots

As seen in some of the above videos, a malfunctioning drone may reach the ground before people below it can react to get out of its way.

Given the inability to provide adequate, split-second cover from a malfunctioning drone, personal protection is recommended to shield a stand-in from harm. We recommend that production provide stand-ins with handheld protective shields (similar to the one on the right), and we recommend that stand-ins carry a protective shield when working in a drone hazard zone. While protective shields will not guarantee absolute protection from a flying drone should it make a sudden, dangerous approach, it may provide just enough protection to deflect a drone that barrels toward or crashes into a stand-in.

Providing clear protective shields (as opposed to opaque shields) allows stand-ins to safely see the drone should it be in the eyeline, whether close by or at a distance. At around 5 lbs., protective shields are light enough for most stand-ins to carry and manipulate at a moment’s notice.

If you see that it has become windy or if you see bird activity around the drone, there may be reason to believe that the drone is especially vulnerable and may come suddenly, erratically crashing to the ground. Having a shield on the arm may mean a stand-in has better protection from the drone than no protection at all.

Wear a Protective Helmet When Standing in in Drone Shots

A protective helmet (or hardhat) will not protect a stand-in from bodily injury as a protective shield may. But when standing in for camera setups where the drone is overhead, it may be especially preferred to wear a protective helmet.

If you are standing in on the ground with an overhead camera mounted to a drone, your eyeline may be on the ground while the drone is directly overhead of you. It would be a conflict of interest for you to look up at the drone during this camera setup. So, when you focus on your eyeline with a drone overhead, your head becomes more vulnerable because you are unable to study the drone and unable to protect your head the moment the drone drops from the sky should it malfunction.

While it may seem commonsense not to maintain laser focus in camera setups involving drones, the pressures of the work situation may override commonsense. For example, if you prioritize your safety over performing your job, you would focus on the drone above you rather than your eyeline in the distance.

However, a director, AD, DP, or camera operator may override your personal priorities, ordering you to take your eye off the drone and take an eyeline. If you follow these orders even for a split second, you are forced to become a more vulnerable stand-in, unable to protect your head from a sudden drop by the drone.

The nature of stand-in work is such that when you are standing in, you are almost never looking at the camera. Instead, you are focused on an eyeline or on some mark away from camera. Protective helmets in camera setups where the drone is directly or nearly directly overhead of the stand-ins may aid in protecting the stand-ins from a sudden drop by the drone.

Use Stunt Performers Rather Than Stand-Ins for Camera Setups Involving Drones

Given that stunt performers are trained to handle risky situations on set, they may be better suited to take on the risks inherent in camera setups involving drone photography. So, productions may be advised to use stunt performers rather than stand-ins for camera setups involving drones.

Stunt performers are more expensive than stand-ins to hire. That said, stand-ins are not hired to perform stunts or to perform in risky situations, and a stand-in would be a “cheap” substitute for a stunt performer. The use of a stand-in in a particularly risky camera setup might be seen as a production “cutting corners” to pull off a shot, which is to say it may exemplify a production compromising its workers’ safety.

Report Safety Violations

The FAA has outlined operational limitations on the commercial use of drone photography, the violation of which may be viewed as a safety violation.

Some of those limitations include the following:

  • When shooting with a drone, the pilot in command (“PIC”) must have the drone within visual line of sight (“VLOS”) at all times during the operation of the drone. This means that the drone cannot fly where the pilot cannot see it.
  • In addition, a visual observer (“VO”) must be present, and the VO must be able to verbally communicate with the PIC.
  • Furthermore, the PIC cannot be aided with any more than corrective lenses in order to maintain VLOS.

If the drone flies out of VLOS, or if verbal communication is not capable between the VO and the PIC, or if the PIC is using some kind of visual aid to maintain VLOS, a safety violation has likely occurred in the commercial operation of the drone.

In the presence of a safety violation while standing in in a drone scene, you are now working in both a hazardous and an unsafe work environment. In such a case, we would advise you to remove yourself from standing in and move to safer cover — presumably under solid protective cover like a building, away from a window — not merely a tent or tree.

If, however, you need to remain working as a stand-in in this unsafe work environment, we would recommend you immediately report the violation to the 1st Assistant Director, a union representative, or someone responsible for aerial safety.

Opt out of Working in Drone Shots

All of this said, if a stand-in finds it too risky work in the presence of a drone — if production is ordering you not to look at the drone when you are maintaining your safety, is not providing safety gear, is not giving hazard adjustments, is committing safety violations regarding commercial use of the drone, etc. — the stand-in should not work in the presence of the drone given the inherent hazards and risk of injury or death.

Conclusion

Stand-ins may be the first people in the line of fire of dangerous, potentially lethal remotely piloted aircraft in the television and film industry, and considering the relative newness of the technology, the vulnerability of the equipment, and the summary grant and blanket authorization processes of the FAA, stand-ins may fall needless victims to an accident involving “drones.”

It is the hope of Stand-In Central to curb this potential. When an inevitable accident happens on set involving drone photography, we hope that the stand-ins on set stayed vigilant when working around the drone, were given proper hazard payment and protective equipment, and/or stood down while proper stunt performers who were willing and trained to take on the risks took over their stand-in jobs.

Drones are not toys, no matter how much they may seem like them. They are a threat to safety on set, and their risks — especially in this day and age of safety — need to be respected and promoted far and wide when filmmaking with them.

Do you have an opinion about “drones” in filmmaking? Are you a stand-in concerned about working around drones? Are there facts you think need correcting in this post? Post your comments below!

About the Author:

Ben Hauck (Editor, Stand-In Central) has stood in on a number of projects shot in the NYC area. In addition to day-playing, he has stood in on major projects for John Oliver (Last Week Tonight), Jason Bateman (The Longest Week, Disconnect, and The Switch), Jason Sudeikis (Sleeping with Other People), Seth Rogen (The Night Before), and Peter Facinelli (Nurse Jackie and American Odyssey). Ben is an actor and improviser, author of the 2012 book Long-Form Improv (Allworth Press), and host of The Acting Income Podcast. http://benhauck.com

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