Very few new technologies come along that can honestly be called “game changers,” but the use of small, commercial unmanned aerial systems (UAS)—or “drones”—by the real estate community might just fit that description.
Affordable aerial photography, with the ability to fly in close and capture high quality video, gives REALTORS® another tool in their marketing arsenal, and many are incorporating this capability into their online marketing with spectacular results. There is just one problem though. Commercial use of drones is currently illegal, and violators are subject to hefty fines by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
The real estate community is not alone. A number of other industries are also looking at ways to incorporate the use of drones to save time and money, and to do things that simply could not be done before, at least cost-effectively. Drones hold much promise for a wide variety of utilizations by the film industry, retailers such as Amazon.com, agriculture, first responders, weather research and forecasting, and energy and utility companies, just to name a few. If the drones are available for purchase now—and they are, for under $1,000—and hobbyists have been flying them for years, what is the problem?
It all centers around the word “commercial.” It is true that unmanned hobby aircraft have been flying successfully for a number of years, and with very few safety issues or concerns. Hobbyists have been governed by operating standards for recreational and hobbyist use. Once an individual or company accepts money in exchange for a service rendered, the activity becomes commercial in nature and cannot be considered recreational.
Liability, insurance, operator standards, licensing, and some system for enforcement of these requirements all come into play once the conversation goes commercial. Currently there are no standards for commercial flight of unmanned systems in the national air space.
Enter the FAA.
The Federal Aviation Administration is charged with the safety of our national air space. That is its primary concern. Congress has mandated the FAA address this issue by putting into place rules and regulations for the commercial operation of drones by 2015, under the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act. In anticipation of this, the fledgling, entrepreneurial unmanned systems industry in the United States is busting at the seams—and into the airways. This process, which has been fraught with delays so far, lags far behind a number of other countries, such as Japan, where drones can legally be flown in a commercial capacity and have been successfully deployed, as an example, for crop analysis: disease and pest detection and treatment, crop dusting and more for the last 20 years.
Currently, only public and educational institutions can fly small unmanned aircraft (less than 25 pounds) for research , development, test and evaluation after securing from the FAA a Certificate of Authorization. The number of commercial operators seeking a Certificate from the FAA is sizable and growing by the day, further over-burdening an already underfunded and short-staffed agency.
There are many other issues that cloud this picture (pun intended!), but what is clear for now is this: it is currently illegal to fly a small drone for any kind of commercial purpose. Therefore, regardless of what you may have been told, if someone is selling this service to a real estate agent or company, it is an illegal activity and is subject to FAA penalties. A number of operators have tested the limits of the hobbyist rules, and a quick YouTube search will turn up a variety of videos shot by drones flying over stadiums or other public places, or as recently seen on a number of social media sites, through a fireworks show, claiming the activity was for recreational purposes. While the FAA cannot adequately police all drone activity, be assured that it is not sitting idly by.
The commercial potential of the UAS industry is staggering, having been conservatively estimated to be $82 billion (yes, with a “b”) between now and 2025. Given that potential, to say that pressure is mounting on the FAA to get rules into place just might be the understatement of the year. The National Association of REALTORS® has joined a number of other organizations urging the 2015 FAA ruling.
Until such time the rules take effect, however, the commercial drone industry in the United States is effectively grounded.