Filming with a Drone in Cuba without Losing it

Phantom Drone. Photo: Alejandro Trujillo


Before flying an unmanned aerial system in Cuba, legally, you need to undergo a long approval process which requires at least five different authorizations.


By Claudia Padron Cueto (El Toque)

HAVANA TIMES – One of the first drones that Alejandro Perez and Alfredo Ureta used to film in Cuba was designed and built by some guys at the model airplanes club with their own hands and flown by Marcos Casamayor. Seven years later, local drones are no longer a native or primitive product; the national market now has a range of models available, especially Inspires and Phantoms, of all generations.

Filmmaker Jose Rojas prefers to film with prototypes that are able to lift large format cameras, which can fly up to an hour by themselves.

He has directed over 100 videos ever since he made his first music video when he was still a student at the Higher Institute of Industrial Design, and he has received a dozen Lucas Awards too. He was also one of the first filmmakers to incorporate aerial shots into his projects, which he filmed with rented-out drones. Today, he says he has made over a dozen projects with these unmanned aerial systems. Experiences which the filmmaker insists are always “risky”.

“It’s quite commonplace for the police to pick up on a drone flying and then try and interfere with the signal. If the drone falls down, it can get lost or end up in pieces because of the impact. This is one of the most constant risks we face,” Jose tells us.

“Once, the police arrived while I was in the middle of filming: they wanted to take the drone away and arrest the pilot. Everything worked out in the end though because we had asked for the authorization we needed in advance.”

Before flying an unmanned aerial system in Cuba, legally, you need to undergo a long approval process which requires at least five different authorizations. This paperwork depends on institutions such as Cuba’s Civil Aviation Authority (IACC), the Armed Forces, the Ministry of Interior, the local government in every place you’re filming and even from the Ministry of Science or the City Historian’s Office in some cases. Responses (positive or negative) can take over 30 days to arrive.

Photo: Patrick Oppmann, CNN.

“When film projects are institutional: commercials, feature movies, documentaries or series, aren’t shot with so much haste because there is a time period to wait for authorization to come through. In these kinds of projects, they already know what specific shots they want and at what time,” explains Neissy Delgado Rodriguez, a producer with over five years experience filming with drones.

Once you have the coordinates, the specialist makes an official request to film which means you have to state the kind of drone and camera you are using, as well as the name of the pilot. Not everyone can operate an unmanned aerial system. There is a restricted list of people who have been accredited by the IACC to fly them.

Before flying a drone in Cuba, the pilot has to pass a rigorous health and agility exam in order to get their operating license. Neissy only knows about another seven pilots who have this license and work for artistic projects. They all belong to the model airplanes club which meets up at Lenin park from time to time, this being the only outdoor space where drones, model aircrafts and small helicopters can be flown for sporting purposes.

Flying a drone without authorization

When the project is a music video (which is the most sought-after surprisingly enough), filming usually only lasts a short while and it isn’t really worth waiting for authorization to come through a lot of the time. This is where unlicensed pilots come into the picture, who fly without authorization. They offer a much less expensive and speedy service, but it is illegal.

Some filmmakers we interviewed confirmed that they had never requested authorization to use these devices.

“You have two options: you either put yourself on the line and film without consent, which is what many of us do, or you begin a never-ending process of redtape which might well end up denying you authorization anyway. For independent film production companies that are just starting out, the first option is the only valid one we have,” a filmmaker explains who rents out drones. One of the drones he rents out is a Phantom 4 and it costs over 200 CUC to rent it out for the day.

Flying a drone without the necessary paperwork not only puts you at risk of losing the drone or the enhanced camera it has, but also the zero legal chance of getting a new drone into the country to replace the old one in many cases.

Last year, Cuban Customs issued a statement in which it warned that it doesn’t recommend the entry of drones. “Passengers traveling to Cuba are advised to abstain from importing these kinds of devices, thanks in advance”, the institution warns. If people do risk importing them, they can be confiscated, even if the person has a model airplane club pilot license.

Although, in some exceptional cases, some pilots or producers are able to get permits to enter them in the country legally as a temporary import. The majority of drones that fly above our cities filming them came into the country before this regulation was passed or they were smuggled in, taken apart with pieces in different suitcases, according to the drone owners themselves.

In spite of bureaucratic hurdles and how long it takes for this redtape to come through, filmmakers, like Rojas, have a lot of work and need to film in spaces where a drone would be obvious, so they prefer not to take extra risks and ask for DTS services. This film production company gets all the permits needed and films with authorization, which is Neissy’s job.

This team is represented by RTV Comercial and they are generally hired (as well as independent filmmakers) by state companies linked to tourism and publicity.

“Today, we can’t imagine a movie without beautiful aerial shots, which are essential nowadays, but it of course makes sense that artistic interests need to be carefully considered with security regulations in mind,” Neissy warns. “Imagine that while you are filming a concert, 50cm fiberglass blades which weigh a several pounds fall down on part of the crowd.

Unmanned aerial systems have presented a legal challenge for most countries. On the one hand, there is the need to ensure that drones are operated safely, without putting national public, historic or cultural security at risk; while, on the other hand, technology is making advances much faster than laws to regulate their use.

Today, videos of social events, commercials, music videos, feature movies or short films filmed in Cuba all have many aerial shots (filmed with or without authorization) because drones are now a part of Cuban filmmaking. There’s no going back now…

The following video was made with a drone after the flooding last September from Hurricane Irma in Havana.

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