Need for Attention Overcomes FAA Bans on Commercial Drones

Brokers call aerial shots a critical selling tool for high-end real estate.

Amazon’s Prime Air package-delivery-by-drone service may still be more fantasy than reality, but drones are already in commercial use within the U.S. for jobs that aren’t strictly legal, but aren’t clearly a crime.

Using drones to get aerial video and photography is so common in the sale of high-end real estate that even tony brokerages have gone high-tech, though only at low altitude.

Hiring a local photographer and drone-flying hobbyist to shoot a two-minute video designed to highlight the features of a $5.9 million property in the Berkshire mountains, for example, netted brokerage Tucker Welch Properties lots of attention from the media but, so far, none from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

A story in the local Berkshire Eagle that focused on the drone, rather than the property, made headlines as far away as Houston.

Still photos show off the 27-acre Richmond, Ma. property , and its long list of structures that include a colonial-era inn with seven rooms or suites, four cottages, gardens, outbuildings and two separate riding stables with 13 stalls each, along with a heated indoor arena with viewing area and trainer’s quarters.

Inexpensive digital photography and image-heavy Websites allow the use of photos even to market low-rent apartments. A large, historic, very, very horsey property like the 1771 Inn at Richmond and attached Berkshire Equestrian Center needed something more comprehensive to give potential buyers a better feel for the property, according to Cindy Welch, the broker who listed the property and hired an acquaintance –photo/video buff Terry Holland – to shoot the property using a videocam-equipped drone Holland bought for personal use.

His quadrotor drone comes with a hardy but relatively unsophisticated GoPro video-cam that can, nevertheless, send live video back to the controller and allow its tilt, pan and zoom to be controlled separately from controls of the drone.

During the two-minute video, the drone flies high above the property to show off its size and layout and swoops into the multistory indoor riding arena to show off the property’s more horsey facilities – and a few horses and riders who look puzzled at the aerial invasion.

Attractive as it may be to brokers – among whom demand for aerial video is soaring – using drones to show off a property for sale still appears to be illegal.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) does allow the use of remote-controlled drones that fly lower than 400 feet, stay more than three miles away from airports and avoid other aircraft under the same rules that apply to model aircraft. It does not allow unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to be used for commercial purposes, even by the same modelers or hobbyists permitted to fly them as a hobby. (Full PDF of drone/model aircraft rules here.)

Using drones to take video to help sell real estate, as Tucker Welch Properties hired local videographer and drone-hobbyist Terry Holland to do Jan. 13, appears to violate those rules.

Drone-shot aerial video is one of the fastest-growing marketing tools among brokers of high-end real estate, who use it both to attract attention and to give potential customers a better feel for an expensive luxury property, according to a May 14 story from real estate-industry news service Inman News. “The results are breathtaking. It creates a watercooler moment for the seller,” according to an Inman story quoting Matthew Leone, director of Web marketing and social media at New York-based Halstead Property.

Halstead markets its ability to shoot aerial video with drones as a way to highlight a specific property, and as a differentiator of its own services.

Just having a drone isn’t enough, however. Halstead also pitches the depth of field, high resolution, and digital stabilization it gets from high-end video drones to differentiate itself even from other drone-flying brokers. Despite that, the difficulty of stabilizing the picture and getting consistently good imagery means the resulting video isn’t often posted in regular ads, Leone told Inman News. Flying and shooting good video simultaneously remains a niche for a growing cadre of companies willing to invest in the skills and equipment to shoot “dramatic aerial cinematography,” according to California Image Maker, which uses sophisticated Cinestar eight-rotor drones equipped with $4,500 image-stabilizing gimbals of the kind used by moviemakers, live-video goggles that give pilots a drone’s-eye-view of the shot, and a host of other enhancements. Prices range from $400 for a spread of still aerial photos to more than $700 for an aerial video-tour package.

The FAA is currently reconsidering rules on the use of drones for commercial purposes in the U.S., and has proposed changes that include a list of test sites where their use would be legal. It has not yet approved those regulations or even completed the period for public comment.

The agency expects to finalize drone regulations in 2015 that would make legal the limited commercial use of drones weighing less than 55 pounds.

Until then, when it receives reports that a drone is being used for commercial purposes, the FAA is supposed to send an inspector to check for safety problems and, if necessary, ground the drone, according to Inman News.

The FAA, which expects about 7,500 commercial drones to be operating in the U.S. by 2018, is unlikely to pursue real-estate photographers and other relatively low-profile users of drones for commercial purposes. Small-scale drone use is considered a legal gray area partly because of the hobbyist-level equipment usually involved, and partly because the benefit of prosecuting individual violators is likely to be far less than the effort the FAA would have to spend chasing them.

An FAA spokesperson, asked for a May 17 CBS News story whether a drone-using real estate agent was violating the law, said only that “he could be.”

Image: Tucker Welch Properties