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How Drones Are Transforming The Way You Shop For Real Estate

Using aerial photography offers a whole new way to show off sprawling properties.

[Photo: Flickr user Christopher Michel]

Your local real-estate agent might have a new trick up their sleeve very soon: Using drones for aerial photography of sprawling properties. The practice is increasingly commonplace in other countries, and the national trade association for real-estate agents has written up a set of guidelines for agents looking for their own personal eye in the sky.

Drone photography is far cheaper than the next cheapest alternative—helicopters—and much easier to implement in terms of logistics and planning. Stephanie Spear, an attorney at the National Association of Realtors who works on the issue, told Fast Company that the demand for drone photography is simple: Many properties, especially commercial facilities or rural tracts of land, don’t necessarily photograph well on the ground. In late 2015, the NAR issued a FAQ and a sort of best practices guide for real-estate agents who want to use drones.

And, as the FAA streamlines their rules, expect many more real-estate agents to use drones in the future.

Real-Estate Agents With Drones

The FAA currently allows commercial, for-profit drone use under limited circumstances and through a complicated registration process; however, the agency is reportedly working on a more streamlined process for registration and permission with a wide variety of stakeholders. In the meantime, private companies are waiting; Spear says that to come up with their guidelines for real-estate agents interested in drones, the NAR had to work with both policy and legal counsel and the FAA itself. In recent congressional testimony, the NAR's president at the time, Chris Polychron, said the organization and its members were "excited" about the commercial use of drones and called for federal regulations allowing clear and unambiguous use of UAVs for for-profit aerial photography.

"Drone technology offers a tremendous opportunity for the business of real estate and the broader economy. That’s why NAR continues to support the integration of drones into the National Airspace and a regulatory landscape that allows for the responsible commercial use of drones," said the NAR’s current president, Tom Salomone, in a statement emailed to Fast Company.

It’s All About Aerial Photography

Currently, many real-estate agents are believed to be using drones without seeking formal government approval in a sort of "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" situation. The first agent believed to have sought government approval for UAV photography is Douglas Trudeau of Arizona’s Tierra Antigua realty, who obtained permission to "to fly a Phantom 2 Vision+ quadcopter to enhance academic community awareness and augment real-estate listing videos." The Phantom 2 Vision+ is part of a larger family of DJI Phantom drones increasingly used by commercial customers thanks to their relatively low price points and ease of use.

A rich industry exists of third parties working with commercial clients to produce and leverage drone photography. At the recent International Drone Expo, a trade show in Los Angeles, approximately one-third of the booths were dedicated to small startups offering to help existing companies with FAA reporting requirements, image analysis needs, and consulting services.

Photo: Flickr user Stephan Ridgway

One of the companies in this space, a Bay Area-based startup called BetterView, essentially serves as a drone consultancy that links businesses seeking aerial photography with qualified experts who both fly the UAVs and then help clients leverage information from the photographs. David Lyman, the company’s CEO, says they initially worked in the real estate space before pivoting to primarily serving insurers and commercial roofers looking to find damage from aerial photos they couldn’t otherwise easily obtain.

The shift to insurance was partially due to cofounder David Tobias’s background in the insurance world, but Lyman added that aerial photography for real estate was "for the pure marketing stuff, it was something that looks great and plays out well. We did it for residential and commercial, and would take some shots that end up in a real estate listing. Its either the leading shot or ones that enhance a listing quite a bit."

International Shores And Aerial Views

Outside of the United States, aerial regulations are generally more liberal when it comes to aerial photography and drone shots for real estate listings are increasingly routine. AirVu is a Cayman Islands-based drone firm that started off doing aerial real estate photography and then expanded into areas like flying drones over prisons to patrol perimeter fences.

AirVu’s cofounder, Adam Cockerill, told Fast Company that the company was the first in the Cayman Islands to obtain a permit to use drones for aerial commercial photography. "We were one of the first businesses in Caribbean to do so, and were in uncharted territory. We needed to establish ourselves as a drone business, so we did photography for real estate. [...] Initially, it was a lot of residential properties, and we were hired by brokers and some homeowners. There are some beautiful beachfront properties that benefit from aerial views. The only other way you can obtain it is from helicopter, which is both cost-prohibitive and takes place from a higher altitude."

Cockerill’s company uses another firm in turn, Skyward, which produces cloud-based software that conducts drone airspace mapping, logs flights, and takes care of FAA compliance requirements. Because of the safety issues around using drones and the risk of unqualified pilots causing property damage or worse, it’s crucial for realtors or property owners to be careful and err on the side of caution when doing aerial photography.

For most apartments or homes, drone photography is an extravagance. However, it does hold very real appeal to anyone attempting to sell industrial properties, large tracts of land, large estates, or especially photogenic properties. If, as believed, the FAA issues updated commercial requirements for drones in 2016, expect the category to skyrocket.