Realtor Brandon Doyle stood in the middle of a Maple Grove subdivision and fired up his surreptitious selling machine — a remote-controlled drone equipped with a tiny HD camera hooked to its belly.
The helicopter-like gizmo rose 20 feet into the air. Unnoticed, it snapped bird’s-eye views of Doyle’s new listing, capturing the home’s sprawling wooded yard and wetlands. “We want to do anything extra that we can to draw the buyer’s attention,” Doyle said after a recent visit to the property. “It is much easier to visualize 40 acres of land from the air than it is standing on the corner.”
A growing array of businesses are rushing to explore how to use drone technology in a variety of ways — from real estate and commercial photography to crop management and product delivery. But that charge is sparking a significant legal skirmish with the Federal Aviation Administration, which has banned drones for most commercial enterprises, citing concerns over safety and privacy.
“How do you balance free enterprise with safety and training?” said Donald Chance Mark Jr., a nationally known aviation attorney based in the Twin Cities.
Many real estate agents won’t publicly acknowledge that they use drones for fear of interception from the FAA and a possible $10,000 fine. But many are taking the risk anyway because drones are allowing agents to capture impressive aerial views of estates for their clients, offer rooftop video tours of neighborhoods and show the finer details of homes that are nearly impossible to get from the ground.
Real estate agents are becoming so captivated with drone photography that some have invested thousands of dollars in equipment while others are hiring commercial photographers to do the work. Twin Cities resident Wesley Story credits drones for the quick sale of his north suburban home, which was in competition with several houses with similar features.
“Only with an aerial photo could you appreciate the house and the land together,” Story said. “When we saw the results, we were stunned.”
The National Association of Realtors is among a coalition of more than two dozen industry groups asking the FAA to set guidelines that would allow them to utilize drones in advance of official guidelines that should allow some commercial uses, expected sometime in 2015. Despite the drones’ potential to boost home sales, the Realtors association is telling its agents to resist using them until regulatory issues are settled.
“The association recommends against members’ use of drones for real estate marketing purposes and against hiring companies to do the same,” the group said in a statement.
Drones — also called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — are virtually silent and widely available for just a few hundred dollars. They can be small as a Frisbee, are capable of flying in any direction and can transmit video and images hundreds of feet.
Advances in technology have made drones accessible to nearly everyone — hobbyists, novices, now real estate agents who want a competitive edge. Their uses also run the gamut — ranging from food delivery to news coverage to covert spying operations. Even Amazon recently hatched a plan in which it would eventually deliver merchandise in 30 minutes via drones.
“They’re all the buzz,” said Adam Geiss, a Twin Cities-based commercial photographer who recently invested more than $10,000 in remote-controlled aerial cameras. “It’s what everyone is talking about.”
But just as drones have made it easier for Realtors to capture aerial views of estates, crashing them into power lines or encroaching on a neighbor’s privacy is just as easy. The FAA’s current ban, which also prohibits flying drones over 400 feet, seeks to address such concerns, and the agency will announce new rules next year. But for now, critics say that the FAA’s restrictions of drones and their uses are too broad, and that the government doesn’t have the authority to limit how they’re used.
“The FAA has no more right to say that you can’t do something with an [unmanned aircraft] than to say what color your hair is,” said Peter Sachs, a Connecticut-based attorney and drone enthusiast.
But the FAA has strongly defended its position on drones and has disputed the various claims of ambiguity.
“I know there’s a lot of questions about real estate use. That would be commercial operations, and those are prohibited,” said FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory. “There have been cases when people are injured when UAVs fly into crowds or fall onto people.”
Doyle said he flies only on private property with permission of the owners, never exceeds 400 feet and does not charge for the aerial photos.
The devices have become so controversial that many municipalities aren’t waiting for the FAA to make its ruling. Several bills have been offered up at the Minnesota Legislature this year restricting their use. In tiny St. Bonifacius, it’s a misdemeanor to fly such devices. In Deer Trail, Colo., the city has declared open season on drones with an ordinance that would enable a resident to buy a $25 drone-hunting license.
The FAA won’t say how many fines it has issued, but the first was slapped on a Swiss photographer accused of recklessly flying a drone at the University of Virginia. He responded by suing the FAA, and a federal judge recently ruled in his favor, briefly lifting the ban. The FAA quickly filed an appeal, causing the ban to go back into effect.
Many Realtors opt to hire photography companies instead buying drones themselves because they believe doing so protects them from the legal responsibility of operating a drone.
Last year, Charles Eide of EideCom Media and Events received a phone call asking the company to discontinue marketing of its aerial services.
“We complied with their request,” Eide said.
The company now flies only for demonstration and recreational purposes, Eide said, lamenting that he’s lost significant revenue opportunities. He has, however, founded an aerial photography training program called FLYSAFE, which has been attracted hundreds of students from across the country.
Working out the rules
As the FAA works to shape its rules, the National Association of Realtors is optimistic the new federal guidelines will be in the favor of its members.
But Mark, the aviation attorney, noted that there is still a fair amount of uncertainty about what the law is going to be. “There are going to be a lot of ramifications, which is why the FAA is taking so long in trying to figure these things out.”
Geiss, the commercial photographer, knows the risks of using drones firsthand. Even after about 50 hours of flying time and more than 300 flights, he’s crashed his drone six times, including clipping a tree branch.
“What worries me is people going to the hobby shop and throwing $800 down thinking they can do whatever they want,” he said. “People do need training.”
Meanwhile, agents say drones offer an unprecedented marketing opportunity.
Ellen Phelps, a sales agent with Coldwell Banker Burnet in Wayzata who specializes in high-end properties, said in the pre-drone days, photographers would have to hire a plane, or set up a ladder on top of their truck to capture the kinds of panoramic views that might capture a buyer’s attention. Today, for just a few hundred dollars, photographers can capture stunning sky-high images that might lead to million-dollar sales.
“It’s a beautiful way to capture views,” she said. “It is definitely the wave of the future.”