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Drones fly into the political ad wars
February 7, 2015
(Read the original story on the Politico site.)
Drones, long used in actual warfare, are now being deployed in political battles.
Campaign advertising gurus are using small versions of the unmanned aircraft to shoot footage of a fly-fishing candidate, scenic shots of a downtown and a marina, a pol walking near wind turbines, and other promotional images. But the relatively cheap, flexible technology has its downsides: one nearly crashed into Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, for instance.
And — as in violent conflicts — the legality of using drones for filming ads isn't totally clear.
Veteran GOP ad-maker Fred Davis, a pioneer of using drones for campaign ads, said the camera-equipped aerial vehicles, many of which are very small, "can do things that even a helicopter can't do, and … at an unbelievably reasonable price."
"They can fly through an open window, they can fly inside," Davis said. "They can fly up and down stairways. They can get really close to things — say, a church steeple or a tree. We've done them in factories, where they go through small openings into big rooms in factories."
Drones have already been infiltrating other realms — Hollywood uses them, news organizations are getting in the game and even Amazon hopes to have a drone delivery service.
It's hard to quantify how many political ads have been filmed using drones because the technique is still fairly new and its use remains limited to a relatively few firms. But because the cost of using drones has dramatically fallen, ad makers expect their use to increase in the 2016 cycle, including possibly in some presidential campaigns.
Ad makers say drones can give a more polished, cinematographic look with sweeping aerial shots that can make the TV spots stand out from the usual slash and burn of dark negative commercials. They could follow a candidate's campaign bus down a road, take beauty shots of different places he's visited and snap images of where he grew up.
"If I was going to do it, I would have two drones come up and fly over the top of the biggest rally of people I could put together and fly right above the guy speaking and over the top of all these people supporting me," said Casey Phillips, co-founder of GOP firm RedPrint Strategy.
He cautioned, however, that footage from drones doesn't always match the quality of footage from regular cameras, so top candidates, especially those running for president, will probably still send photographers on helicopters to get the occasional aerial shot, even if it is more expensive.
High winds and other factors can also make drones a bit of a risk.
Davis hired a drone pilot who, on a windy August 2013 day, lost control of a camera-carrying drone as it flew down an outdoor stairway with Snyder, the Republican governor of Michigan. "It went way too far, and Rick had to jump out of the way," said Davis, who's based out of Hollywood. "It crashed out into a million pieces."
Snyder's security team wasn't happy.
Some in the political realm have been using the technology for footage beyond ads.
David Bossie, president of Citizens United, hired a drone controller last year to shoot scenes of Guatemalan villages for a documentary on a trip that Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) took to perform eye surgery on residents there.
"My team wanted to get the full experience of the poverty these people live in — to get some beautiful shots of ancient churches and the architecture," Bossie said.
Drones used in political ads can vary in price from $1,200 to over $10,000 depending on their weight and stability, according to Phillips and Davis. Tiny GoPro cameras and competing models have improved the quality of drone footage, although a ground-based shot is still much sharper.
Some of the drones ad makers are using aren't too different from the radio-controlled toys that show up as Christmas gifts for children.
"The things we're using are hobby electronics," said Brad Todd of On Message Inc. "There's literally no mechanical difference between them and a little toy helicopter a kid would use."
In at least one case, a drone was a featured character in a campaign ad.
Matt Rosendale, a Republican House candidate from Montana, used a rifle to shoot down a drone to make the point that he didn't like how the government uses the technology.
"Spying on our citizens? That's just wrong," he said in the April 2014 spot. "I'm ready to stand tall for freedom and get Washington out of our lives."
The Federal Aviation Administration has already missed a Jan. 1 deadline to propose rules for the commercial use of small drones. The proposal is expected soon, perhaps within the month. Until then, the agency has issued case-by-case exemptions to filmmakers and other select industries. In an email, FAA spokesman Les Dorr said: "If you are flying a model aircraft/UAS [unmanned aircraft systems] for hobby or recreational purposes, you don't need FAA authorization but you must operate safely according to the law … Any use other than hobby or recreational flying needs approval from the FAA."
Political ad firms, which are for the most part not waiting for exemptions to use the drones, have so far been counting on the FAA to overlook their small-scale use of the gadgets, just as the FAA has turned a blind eye toward lots of other drone operators. But some ad makers who have turned to drones worry about being made a test case by the government for unauthorized use of the contraptions.
"The legality of this stuff is just very much up in the air," said one ad maker who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We wouldn't want to do anything that got one of our clients in the soup for something, or drew negative attention to them."