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Spain’s sudden ban on drones is a punch in the gut for its film industry

Last October, Ridley Scott and more than a thousand extras and film crew arrived in Andalusia, in southern Spain, to shoot Exodus, his new epic about the life of Moses starring Christian Bale. “They spent a whole month here”, Piluca Querol, the director of the Andalusia Film Commission, told Quartz: “It’s the first time unemployment has gone down in Almería at that time of year, thanks to all of the construction.”

The movie industry is an important contributor to the economy in Andalusia, the region with the highest unemployment rate in all of Europe (pdf). “Film producers use drones a lot,” Querol said, “especially in pre-production to get things ready, prepare shots and look for possible camera positions.” She added, “of course [drone images] promote Spain abroad, in our case as a great place to film movies”.

So Querol was shocked earlier this month to read of a ban on commercial drone activity published by Spain’s State Agency For Air Safety (AESA): “We are very worried by the news”, she said. “We understand it as a total ban”.

Issued on April 7, the note ‘”reminds” Spaniards, “in order to avoid misunderstandings”, that: “The use of aircraft piloted by remote control with commercial or professional ends is not permitted, and never has been”, and that commercial drone use over Spain is, “illegal and subject to the imposition of the corresponding sanctions”.

AESA told Quartz that “AESA has not prohibited the use of ‘drones'; the Air Safety Act currently does not allow them to be used for certain activities, once drones [are classified] as aircraft.” It said that the drone industry “knew about the situation beforehand.”

“Nonsense”, said Agustín Rivera, the reporter who broke the story at Spanish news site El Confidencial (link in Spanish): “it’s true the legislation existed before but they had never been so blunt about it (…) there was bewilderment in the industry”. Violeta Vargas, who edits a blog on the Spanish drone sector, and is an R&D project manager for a Spanish company that designs and builds larger drones, agreed: “Of course it was news, huge news, people didn’t know it was illegal, they thought there was a kind of gap in the law”.

A cloudy legality

Drone laws vary widely around the world, including within Europe itself, though the European Commission this month announced it would develop continent-wide rules. Regulators that try to restrict or ban drone use can find themselves struggling to control an exploding market, as has happened to the Federal Aviation Administration in the US.

Spain’s rules are rooted in the 1960 Air Navigation Act (Spanish). As one might expect of a piece of legislation written decades before drones were even imagined, it’s ambiguous—for instance, it defines an aircraft as any flying object “suited to the transportation of people or objects,” which commercial drones often aren’t.

But commercial drone operators contacted by Quartz said they understood the AESA ruling as a total ban, and that they had already lost orders. Cromática 45, whose aerial video of Madrid has been seen over 4 million times according to a spokesman, shot it with a small DJI Phantom drone, which Spaniards can acquire for a few hundred euros in El Corte Inglés, Spain’s leading retail store. It’s “a total ban,” a company spokesman said.

Another company, Helifilm, last year produced a whole series of programs for TVE 1, Spain’s main public TV channel, titled “Spain From The Sky Up“, full of drone footage shot above crowds running around Spain’s famous fiestas. “We also used drones to film scenes for Ocho Apellidos Vascos“, said Ramón Canton, Helifilm’s manager, referring to a recent Spanish box office hit (titled A Spanish Affair in English) that includes spectacular landscape shots of the Spanish countryside. Canton described AESA’s ruling as “a total halt until further notice.”

Even Spain’s regional governments are using drones. In April, the Andalusian government ran an emergency exercise for its first responders in a road tunnel (Spanish), and commissioned a local company, Camfly, to film a simulated accident using a drone.

Cromática 45 says it has had four orders cancelled since last week; Camfly has seen 15 orders disappear, “all the work until October;” and the Andalusia Film Commission has even had to stop a project for the Andalusian regional government. “Today the answer [to clients] is that it’s not possible. We’ll see about tomorrow,” says Querol.

AESA refused to say how many production companies or media outlets are being sanctioned for filming and publishing drone images. It said the new legislation is “complex, given it has to take into account technology that is still being developed.” Alberto Castaño, chairman of a commercial drone operators’ association that has started some talks with AESA, told Quartz, “They hope to have the draft bill ready before the summer, but then administratively in reality it’s not really going to be ready until next year; their own legal advisors have told them that getting the new bill officially published as law will take ‘at least a year'”.

Not quick enough, say the drone companies. “We couldn’t last more than a month without filming”, said Canton, the manager of Helifilm: “it would be impossible, we live off this activity, my partner even mortgaged his house to invest in the business”. For now, said the Cromática 45 spokesman, “we are going to continue working in areas of minimum risk.”

Matthew Bennett is a journalist based in Murcia, Spain, and editor of the Spain Report. He tweets at @matthewbennett.

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