US aviation regulators loosened restrictions on the commercial use of drones on Thursday, granting six television and movie production companies permission to use the small, remotely piloted aircraft to shoot scenes on closed sets.
The Federal Aviation Administration said it would allow filming with drones provided the aircraft weigh 55 pounds (25 kg) or less, are used within sight of the remote pilot, who must hold a private pilot's license, and are flown under 400 feet (120 metres) in altitude, among other restrictions.
The approval marks a major advance for the growing drone industry, which is expected to generate billions of dollars in economic activity once restrictions on commercial use of drones are removed. The FAA currently bans most commercial drone flights, but is required by Congress to integrate drones into the US airspace in coming years.
"This is the first step to allowing the film and television industry to use unmanned aircraft systems in our nation's airspace, and it's a milestone in the wider effort to allow unmanned aircraft for many different types of commercial use," transportation secretary Anthony Foxx said in a conference call.
In granting the exemptions, the FAA barred the six companies from making drone flights at night, required that flights take place on sets closed to the public, and said operators must inspect the aircraft before each flight.
The film and television industry hailed the FAA decision.
"Today's announcement is a great victory for the industry but also a great victory for audiences," Chris Dodd, chairman and chief executive officer of the Motion Picture Association of America, said on the conference call.
Dodd noted that drones have been used in other countries to film scenes in such movies as the James Bond film Skyfall and the Harry Potter series. "This is going to bring a lot of business back home to the United States," he said.