Six Hollywood Companies Granted Private Drone Fleets by FAA

The next sweeping vista seen in a Hollywood blockbuster movie may have been filmed by a robot.

The Federal Aviation Administration granted waivers today to six film and television production companies to use their own unmanned aircraft over existing federal restrictions. The firms will need to keep their drones confined to movie sets and below a specific altitude, but it is the first time private companies have been allowed to use drones in populated areas.

It is a move likely to foreshadow an expanding role for businesses eager to make use of unmanned vehicles in American skies.

The companies will have to keep their aircraft under 55 pounds, within line of sight at all times, and at least 100 feet from people who are not part of the production. They will also be required fly no faster than 57 mph and no higher than 400 feet to avoid collisions with manned aircraft. In their petitions to the FAA, each company said the craft would be flown by certified pilots.

Those pilots will not be allowed to operate their aircraft at night, though the FAA said it would be open to redacting that rule if the companies implemented further safety precautions.

Tight federal guidelines had previously restricted most civilian drone use to non-commercial entities, such as model plane hobbyists and academic research, as long as they were kept to similar restrictions and at least five miles from an airport. Previously only two other companies had been granted exceptions to those rules: both delivery services in remote regions of Alaska.

In 2012 Congress dictated the FAA to relax the rules to gradually allow commercial flights of any size over the United States. But some aviation safety groups and pilots associations have expressed concern about whether Hollywood could adequately protect urban areas from accidents.

The National Airline Pilots Association said today they were "encouraged that the FAA is moving cautiously and requiring controls for these [remotely piloted aircraft] operations."

The six production houses are Astraeus Aerial, Aerial MOB, HeliVideo Productions, Pictorvision, RC Pro Productions Consulting/Vortex Aerial, and Snaproll Media.

A petition from a seventh company, Flying-Cam, is still under review. Flying-Cam had previously used drone aircraft overseas to film scenes in the 2012 James Bond movie, "Skyfall."

The announcement comes one day before the DHL delivery company is set to begin the first ever drone courier service to residents of a remote island off the coast of Germany. The company says it is the first time unmanned commercial flights have been allowed a regular route in Europe.

Meanwhile, Internet shopping giant Amazon has been lobbying for a drone delivery fleet to take off in the United States. That company is among over 30 others still seeking waivers from the FAA - including uses in agriculture and oil production.

ABC News' Richard Davies contributed to this report.