Game of Drones
Drones are coming to resorts, which want them for everything from vanity videos to rescue efforts. But don’t expect to fly your own drone on the hill soon.
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Bruce McTavish Glimpsed the dawning of skiing’s drone era last season at Canada’s Big White resort. The 60-year-old Seattleite paid a new drone-video service to film himself and his fiancée skiing a run together. “It was a lot of fun,” McTavish says. “I’d always wanted to see what I look like skiing from above.”
Pending various government approvals, video-drone services could soon take off at resorts across North America. And the ski industry is eyeing drones for a range of uses besides making souvenir movies, including search and rescue, wildfire spotting, chairlift inspections, and even avalanche control.
“Ski areas have tremendous interest in operating drones commercially in a broad variety of commercial and safety applications,” the National Ski Areas Association wrote in a letter last April to the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees all commercial uses of drones. Drone companies must prove their “airworthiness,” and any business, from a wedding photographer to a slopeside video service, that wants to operate a drone for profit must get a federal permit.
Te permit is called a Section 333 Exemption, and the FAA granted a small number of them for drone use at resorts in 2015: ESPN used drones to film at the Winter X Games in Aspen last winter, and the organizers of a Spartan Run at Squaw in the all also got permission to use the flying cams.
Don’t expect to bring your own drone to the mountain this season. With a few exceptions, ski areas have instituted broad private-drone bans for customers. Safety and liability are the top concerns. An out-of-control drone (commercial drones can weigh 50 pounds) could injure or kill. All ski areas operated on U.S. Forest Service land have authority to ban drones as part of their federal operating permit. “Ski resorts are public places with lots of infrastructure and people,” says Don Dressler, who oversees 26 ski resorts in the Rocky Mountain region for the U.S. Forest Service.
Canada has looser regulations, which is why Big White and Whistler were able to offer a video-drone service last winter as part of a pilot project. In the late fall of this year, the company that offered the service, a Silicon Valley startup called Cape Productions, was awaiting FAA approval of drone procedures, such as minimum distance required between the drones and the skiing public, so it can start operating at a handful of American resorts this season, including Copper and Winter Park in Colorado and Homewood in California.
Here’s how it works. Customers wear a wristband that wirelessly communicates with the drone, which is restricted to a programmed flight path—or “rail”—on a designated slope thanks to a technology called “geo fencing.” The resorts also rope off the slope for use only by the filming participants. As the skier descends, the drone automatically tracks the action and films the scene from approximately 30 feet overhead. Cape then edits the footage into a 90-second to two-minute video complete with music and scenic background shots for about $150. Skiers can then share the video on Facebook and other social media. (Go to cape.com to see drone videos.)
“You sign up, meet us on the mountain, and within a day or two you get a gorgeously filmed segment,” says Cape Productions co-founder Jason Soll, who grew up watching Warren Miller films and wanted to give average skiers a chance to star in their own action movies.
While Soll says drones are safe, tested, and ready for the slopes, the FAA is being exceedingly cautious due to safety and security concerns. The new generation of drones are automated and require no handheld remote controls (like the one for your kid’s radio-controlled truck). However, Cape will have a “pilot in command” on the ground with the ability to “take over at all times,” following federal mandates, Soll says. Regulations also require that pilots fly drones only within their line of sight. (With new wireless trackers, drones can easily follow a skier up and down a mountain, the only limitations being unobstructed airspace and battery flight time.)
The DJI drones that Cape Productions uses weigh about seven pounds, cost about $3,500, and can reach 40 mph, fast enough for the U.S. Ski Team to start using them to film super-G training runs. But a seven-pound object hurtling through the sky is the definition of a missile, hence the FAA’s tight control. That said, Soll anticipates the FAA will allow restricted commercial use on slopes as early as midwinter.
Ski-school videos are another logical application. Drones could likewise be used to do all sorts of visual inspections of lifts and other remote infrastructure. Outside of resort boundaries, the sky is the limit.
CMH heli skiing partnered with Cape last season to film customers around Revelstoke. But the application goes beyond entertainment. “The potential for drones in the backcountry is huge,” says Joe Flannery, president of CMH and a member of Cape Productions’ advisory board. For instance, drones could help find lost or downed skiers and scout dangerous snow conditions. “You could get real-time weather images of an adjacent drainage or valley,” Flannery says.
Ski-movie brands, including TGR and Warren Miller, are using drones because of their low cost. “We used to hire crews to shoot with gas-powered mini helicopters carrying heavy film cameras at around $20,000 for a one- to two-day commercial shoot,” says veteran Warren Miller producer Josh Haskins. “Now we fly $2,500 drones ourselves and capture images on cameras the size of smartphones.”
The drones are getting lighter, better, and cheaper. A number of companies, including Lily, GoPro, and Vantage Robotics, are launching drones for skiers and other active folks. These fully automated flying cams will literally follow you anywhere. “Ski areas recognize that there is a real demand, especially among Millennials and our younger guests, who are captivated by technology and capturing their lives on video for social media,” says Dave Byrd, director of regulatory affairs for NSAA. However, nobody wants the drone to become the next selfie stick. “If everybody who owns a GoPro has a drone in the future,” says McTavish, the Seattle skier, “that would be a problem.”