Drone Technology: Taking Property Management to New Heights


Drones are fully visible on the FAA’s radar today.

In the past two years, the debate has gone on whether UAS should be allowed for commercial use – selling photos or videos or providing contract or professional services. The real estate industry has been leading the charge.

About a year ago, some realtors challenged the illegality of using drones for commercial purposes after a judge dismissed a proposed $10,000 fine by the FAA against businessman Raphael Pirker, who took video of the University of Virginia Medical Center using a foam glider for an advertisement.

But the FAA has mulled how to effectively incorporate small drones into the national airspace at Congress’ behest since 2012. Last fall, the FAA began issuing Section 333 exemptions to allow low-risk commercial drone operations until full regulations are adopted. In February, the FAA proposed rules for the legal operation of small drones beyond recreational use.

With the exemption, approved operators can fly small drones and record images within a designated area but several conditions apply. For example, operators must have a pilot’s license and follow a list of operational limitations that dictate where and when drones can be flown and limit their size and speed. One restriction prohibits operations over any person not involved in the maneuvers. Also, aircraft must weigh less than 55 pounds, be flown only between sunrise and sunset and can’t fly above 400 feet of ground level.

Even though the FAA’s rules are not in effect, more than 700 individuals and companies have received waivers and are using drones for photography, real estate, insurance, agricultural, construction, utilities/energy, manufacturing, conservation and other business purposes. As of early July, more than 110 of the exemptions were granted to real-estate related companies, the most by any industry asking for permission to fly drones (other than general UAS service firms).

Pat Rizzi of the Hogan Lovells law firm said in a July webinar co-hosted by NAR about drones that the FAA’s rules are evolving but won’t likely be finalized until late 2016 or 2017. One requirement under discussion is the pilot’s license. The FAA is now proposing to make it easier to operate a small drone and require only certification through an airman operator certificate designated for small unmanned aircraft. But for now, the conditions, limitations and requirements posed by the current exemptions will govern such drone operations.

Commercial use of drones taking flight via FAA exemption

Douglas Trudeau, who represents Tierra Antigua Realty of Tucson, AZ, was the first to obtain an exemption to use drones for real estate marketing. In January, he was granted permission to operate a DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ drone nearly 180 days after starting the waiver process.

Besides 1,200 hours of sweat equity, Trudeau has about $2,500 invested in two drones, and has filmed just one property because the waiver confines filming to only rural areas. On his website, a video short of three minutes shows a $1.5 million luxury home on 25 acres along the Tucson Mountain Range. The home presentation is sandwiched between a few seconds of aerial footage at the beginning and end. The rest of the video is shot on the ground and narrated by Trudeau. Two other shorter videos, including a 50-second clip devoted to aerial shots, are also on the site.

While the house hasn’t sold, the aerial work and hype surrounding Trudeau’s venture into drone real estate photography (he has been interviewed by U.S, German and French media) has generated significant interest. The property, which Trudeau said has been represented by three or four realtors since 2011, got about 250 inquiries in a month’s time after the video launched.

While he says the video adds a certain wow factor, Trudeau, who has been filming properties for several years, doesn’t want to go into orbit with the aerial component. A little bit goes a long way.

“You get a good feeling at the beginning and a good feeling at the end, and you see the whole house in between,” he said. “All I see from other people, is three minutes in the air. I’ve seen one that’s five minutes. It’s just boring, boring, boring. You want to give people an idea of what it looks like, so they’ll go see the house.”


Real estate, other industries have a lot to gain using drones

All industries, especially those in real estate and insurance, stand to gain by using UAS. The technology is capable of delivering visual information faster than what may take days or months on the ground, Spear said.

Property management firms can employ drones for building management, like doing inspections inside and outside of structures. Insurance agencies can document damage caused by a natural disaster to help expedite claims. In February, State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance obtained a waiver for use in imagery and analytics in underwriting, re-underwriting, catastrophe response, roof inspection, and claim resolutions settings, according to the Exemptions Database.

“The really easy application would be to get a new policy, but when you think about a storm or another disaster in a community and you have several homes or buildings in an area that needs to be surveyed quickly, it’s a really efficient way to get information and images,” Spear said.

Act fast to get on the drone band before it’s too late

NAR tells members that while drones can be used for real estate purposes that the rules must be followed. On its website, the organization recognizes Trudeau’s efforts and says that it was not simple feat to get the drone airborne, although the time to get a waiver is now much shorter than it took him. Trudeau knows one in the real estate industry who got one in 87 days.

To comply, Trudeau doesn’t fly the drone. His job is to choreograph the video and market the property, so he leaves the flying to a hired pilot. That’s the way realtors should use drones in their work, says NAR.

“Our party line is to not use drones unless you have a waiver and not to hire an operator unless they have a waiver,” Spear said.

Exemptions are being issued at a clip of about 50 a week, and the FAA estimates that 7,500 drones will be in use in the next five years as commercial markets develop and demand heightens for UAS. At the current rate, that total could be met in a little more than two and half years. By then, the rules should be finalized.

But Trudeau says the real estate industry shouldn’t wait until then to get in the game.

“I keep telling everybody to be the first in your market, because when the FFA approves all of this, those that are already in the air are going to have a huge advantage.”


Contributing Editor, Property Management Insider
President, Ballpark Impressions, LLC

author photo two

Tim Blackwell is a long-time publishing and printing executive in the Dallas/Fort Worth area who writes about the multifamily housing and transportation industries. He has contributed numerous articles to Property Management Insider, and worked as a newspaper reporter in the D/FW area. Blackwell is president of Ballpark Impressions, and publishes the Cowcatcher Magazine. He is a member of the Fort Worth Chapter/Society of Professional Journalists.

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