Flight Tracker: Are Drones Coming to A Real Estate Market Near You?

By: Tom Larson
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Is it a bird? A plane? No, it’s an unmanned aircraft known as a “drone.” Drones are growing in popularity, and can now be seen in parks, at sporting events and throughout the skies of Wisconsin. While drones have been utilized by the military for years, they are now being used to film weddings, survey property, and for advertising purposes. The use of drones for commercial purposes, however, is currently permissible only on a case-by-case basis. Thus, if you don’t have a permit from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), using a drone for commercial purposes is illegal and may result in a hefty fine. 

To help REALTORS® better understand how drones can and cannot be used in real estate, this article provides a brief overview of the current laws regulating drone use and other related issues.

What is a drone? 

According to the FAA, drones are considered model aircraft that are controlled either autonomously by an onboard computer or by remote control with the pilot on the ground. The computer-controlled drones are generally equipped with a GPS system, which can be used to control the exact flight pattern of the airplane without assistance from a human. 

Drones come in many different shapes and sizes. Some look like airplanes or birds. Round, disc-shaped drones and quadcopters, which have four rotors with attached propellers, are becoming very popular since they are small in size, lightweight and can easily be flown indoors or outside. Larger drones are also available to carry heavier cargo. In addition, drones are often equipped with a small digital camera to shoot photos and videos. Operators often control drones through smartphones or tablets, allowing them to view the drone’s flight path, take pictures, or shoot video through the drone’s camera. 

The price of a drone varies, depending on size, power and camera quality. A basic drone can be purchased on Amazon.com for around $30 and around $60 for one with a camera. For drones with higher-quality cameras or a GPS system, the price can increase to $1,000 or more. 

How are drones regulated? 

The use of drones is generally regulated by the FAA, which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation and oversees all aspects of commercial aviation, including airports, airlines and air traffic control.

According to the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, the use of drones for recreational purposes is allowed as long as certain safety guidelines are met, such as:

  • The drone may not weigh more than 55 pounds.
  • The drone does not interfere with any manned aircraft.
  • The drone is flown within the visual site of the operator.
  • If the drone is flown within five miles of an airport, the operator must notify the airport operator and air traffic controller. 

In addition to the FAA regulations, Wisconsin recently enacted into law the Drone Privacy Protection Act (2013 Wis. Act 213), which further restricts the use of drones to protect personal privacy and safety. The law generally prevents the use of drones for weaponry purposes and limits the ability of law enforcement officers to use drones to gather evidence. Moreover, the law prohibits using drones with the intent to photograph, record or otherwise observe an individual in a place or location where the individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy. Violation of the law is a Class A misdemeanor, which includes a fine not to exceed $10,000 or imprisonment not to exceed nine months, or both. 

In other words, hobbyists, entrepreneurs or aerial photographers may continue to use drones for non-commercial purposes as long as the drone is not used to intentionally photograph an individual in violation of the individual’s privacy interests in places where they have a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as their homes.

How can REALTORS® use drones in their business? 

Despite these restrictions, some REALTORS® have found ways to use drones as part of their business. As long as drones are used inside a building, they are not subject to FAA regulations. Note: indoor drone use must still comply with Wisconsin's Drone Privacy Protection Act. Thus, drones can be used as an effective marketing tool to fly through homes or buildings with the intention of showing various features of the property. 

However, commercial use of drones to photograph or video the outside of a property is still prohibited by the FAA. In fact, the FAA issued guidelines in June to specifically clarify that a real estate agent flying a drone “to photograph a property that he is trying to sell and using the photos in the property’s real estate listing” is considered an unlawful commercial use. Also, it is unlawful to pay someone else to fly a drone to photograph a property to obtain aerial photos for marketing purposes.

While current regulations severely restrict the use of drones for commercial purposes, the rules relating to commercial use of drones may change in the future. The FAA is currently in the process of creating additional rules and regulations for the use of drones, and the rules are expected to be finished by September 2015. 

In the meantime, REALTORS® are strongly discouraged from using drones for commercial purposes. According to a recent report in Forbes Magazine, the FAA has been investigating several REALTORS® who allegedly have been using drones for commercial purposes. This has caused the nation’s largest real estate company to advise its agents to stop using drones as well as drone pictures or video footage shot by someone else as part of their business. The National Association of REALTORS® communicated a similar message recently to all REALTORS® across the country. 

Conclusion

While the use of drones presents some new and exciting opportunities for marketing properties, REALTORS® wishing to use drones to photograph and video the exteriors of properties will have to wait until at least September 2015 when the FAA finishes new rules for commercial usage of drones. 

However, those REALTORS® wishing to use drones for recreational purposes or for commercial purposes inside a property are free to do so, as long as such use complies with all state and local regulations. 

Tom Larson is Vice President of Legal and Public Affairs for the WRA.