In May of this year, prominent drone attorney Brendan Schulman and I appeared on a panel at the Association of Unmanned Vehicles International (AUVSI) trade show. AUVSI is the lobbying group for the drone industry, an industry that is begging the FAA to promulgate regulations to govern the use of drones. On the panel, Brendan and I argued that the FAA’s regulations needed to be carefully crafted, lest they stifle innovation. A few hours later we were standing in the Harry Potter Diagon Alley exhibit at Universal Studios in Orlando Florida. For the show, AUVSI rented out the entire exhibit for the exclusive use of trade show attendees. The sprawling exhibit was a picture perfect scene that made visitors feel as if they were in the town surrounding the Hogwarts Castle. As we looked at the Hogwarts Castle, I turned to Schulman and said, “You know what’s missing from this? Flying broomsticks.” Schulman nodded, “That’s right, they just need drones!” We both chuckled and I jokingly tweeted ”What Universal needs at Harry Potter park…drones with broomsticks.”
Well, it turns out the joke was actually a pretty good idea. Disney Enterprises the rival of Universal Studios has filed a patent application for the use of drones. The company calls their invention an “aerial display system with marionettes articulated and supported by airborne devices.”
Here are four things you should know about Disney’s plans.
Disney plans to use drones as part of their theme park shows. In this image, drones are shown autonomously assembling a fantasy like structure. (Image capture from Disney’s patent application)
Disney Plans To Use Drones For Complex And Innovative Aerial Demonstrations. Disney’s vision is exciting and the application reinforces the arguments that drone proponents have been making for years — let people innovate and develop new uses for this technology. The company envisions using drones as part of an aerial display system consisting of multicopters and aerial marionettes or puppets supported by drones. The system will have a fully integrated ground control station that directs the operation of multiple drones or individually operated drones as part of the display. Disney says drones can solve a problem with aerial displays which have been “limited in how easy it has been to alter the choreography and to provide a repeatable show.”
What Disney wants to do is teach an aerial display system to control multiple drones that can carry blimp-sized marionettes or puppets. Many Disney characters fly in their stories, but according to Disney, prior to this proposed invention, “it was typically not technically feasible to create a flying object that mimics the characters due to size, weight, dimensions or other design challenges.” Disney is innovating, and as I’ve stated in the past, burdensome regulations can prevent companies from doing so. Here we see Disney’s application demonstrating how allowing companies to create new inventions can allow for previously unimagined uses for drone technology. The company is gambling with this invention, premising their hopes on the belief that the FAA will allow them to use their new devices. The question is, will the FAA allow Disney to use the drones once they are created?
Disney’s Proposed Use Of Drones Is Currently Prohibited By The FAA. If Disney tried to use drones today, the FAA would immediately order them to cease their operations. That’s because the FAA believes that the commercial use of drones is unlawful (barring some limited exceptions) until such time as the agency promulgates new regulations. In fact, the FAA claims the authority to regulate flights of unmanned vehicles at any altitude. That prohibition is wide ranging, and it means that drones flown at any altitude for commercial purposes are prohibited. Thus, a Tinkerbell sized drone flying around the Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland (under 77 feet) would be prohibited by the FAA, as would a flight five feet off the ground. That may sound ridiculous, but the FAA’s rules are pretty absurd.
Disney plans to use drones to fly puppets over spectators. In this image, drones support and articulate an aerial marionette with a movable torso, head, and other appendages. (Image capture from Disney’s patent application)
Even If The FAA Promulgates Regulations, It May Still Be Difficult For Disney’s Drones To Fly. Even if the FAA promulgates new regulations, it is not clear that they will allow Disney’s flights. That’s because many believe that the FAA is planning to issue regulations that privilege certain types of drones and drone manufacturers — specifically those drones that have been previously used by the military or that are produced by major aerospace companies. If the FAA takes that path, attempting to centrally plan for the types of drones that they determine are best for predetermined uses, the agency may very well foreclose the development of new types of drones for previously unimagined uses. Drones that may make sense for law enforcement, or military, or agricultural uses may not be the right drones for the aerial displays that Disney or smaller entertainment venues want to conduct. If the FAA’s regulatory process is captured by large aerospace companies, pushing MILSPEC hardware, innovation may be grounded.
Disney Believes That Drones Are A Safer Way To Create Aerial Displays. Disney notes that while it is desirable for them to “provide exciting and surprising shows, each large aerial display must also be presented in a safe manner…[some] aerial displays rely on fireworks, which can be dangerous to implement and often provide a different show result with each use.” Disney’s drones will be designed with safety in mind, which isn’t surprising given the high stakes associated with a mishap at a Disney show. The patent application details a variety of technologically enabled safety protocols, with human overrides for emergency situations.
Allowing a company like Disney to innovate is exactly what the FAA should be enabling, and in fact empowering. The company is in a great position to prove that drones can be operated safely, even over spectators. Disney controls the usable airspace in the immediate reaches above its property (generally understood as below 500 feet). Given the size of the company’s resorts, they will be able to define safe viewing areas that pose no risk to other aircraft and limited and manageable risks for persons on the ground. This is a great opportunity for Disney to prove what drones can do; once they’ve created their flying puppets the FAA should encourage not prohibit their use.