Realtors eager to embrace drone technology despite obstacles

How eager are real estate professionals to use unmanned aerial vehicles to produce bird’s-eye views of the properties they sell?

Just ask Doug Trudeau of Tierra Antigua Realty in Tucson, Ariz. — if you can.

In January, Trudeau became the first Realtor in the country to receive a waiver from Federal Aviation Administration regulations, permitting him to fly his 3-pound Phantom 2 Vision+ quadcopter to take photos and videos of real estate, homes and commercial property his company is selling.

Trudeau was so bombarded with requests for information about using the new technology to market properties that he has had to turn down requests for information from others on how he got the waiver.

The message on his cellphone says: “For inquiries about my FAA approval, I have received hundreds of requests and the distraction from my real estate business has been too much. So please do not leave a message for UAS or drone inquiries. You may find answers at faa.gov or regulations.gov.”

Real estate professionals nationwide are eager to use the technology to market their properties and themselves. Only recently has the FAA issued some clarity to the rules, publishing proposed regulations last month and opening a public comment period that ends April 24. By mid-March, nearly 400 comments had been received.

The highlights of the rules are that drones under 55 pounds can fly a maximum altitude of 500 feet, travel at less than 100 mph and can operate from sunrise to sunset. Operators also must secure a new category of certification.

THE ISSUE OF PRIVACY

Regulators expect to hear the most comments on the issue of privacy, and Realtors are trying to get out in front of it by encouraging their members to make common-sense decisions about how they display their images online.

Nevada Realtors might have even more anticipation toward flying because the commercial drone industry is expected to blossom in the state since it was named one of six to conduct tests for prospective operators.

In the meantime, individuals can apply for a waiver that permits operation, and Trudeau was the first Realtor to get one.

“I don’t mind talking to reporters about the process,” Trudeau said in a recent telephone interview. “But for those who want a waiver, if you really want it, you’re going to have to put in some sweat equity to get it.”

Trudeau received a 26-page grant of exemption document that spells out what he’s allowed to do. Toward the end of the document is a list of 33 conditions and limitations governing his flights. Among them are the standard rules the agency has made public: Don’t fly too fast or too high, don’t fly within 5 miles of an airport or over crowds; fly during daylight hours; always keep the aircraft in view.

Trudeau’s waiver allows him to fly up to 300 feet above the ground and no faster than 35 mph. His permit is good through Jan. 31, 2017.

For Trudeau, it’s easy to keep his craft within the restrictions — he has settings on his drone console that prevent it from going too high or too fast.

Trudeau’s waiver was a first, but experts in the industry expect it to be the first of thousands in the years ahead.

The Washington-based National Association of Realtors is clear in its recommendations to its more than 1 million members: Don’t do it unless you have a waiver.

The association also recommends against hiring a third party to fly on a Realtor’s behalf because of the FAA restrictions.

“Many real estate agents have expressed an interest in using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to take pictures and videos of their listings to show to clients,” the association explained in a policy statement about the use of drone technology.

“Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration prohibits the use of UAVs for commercial purposes unless the user applies for and receives a waiver from the FAA. Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 allows the FAA to grant case-by-case authorization for certain unmanned aircraft to perform commercial operations.”

OPENING SALES DOORS

Trudeau had no idea how to apply when he decided to try to get a waiver last summer. He had about six years of experience flying small radio-controlled helicopters, and it wasn’t until November that he got his more sophisticated quadcopter. It took nearly six months for the FAA to approve the waiver.

Now that he has it, doors have opened for him to sell larger and more expensive properties.

He also has been contacted by other Realtors who have asked him to fly on their behalf. Trudeau is now seeking a modification to his exemption to allow him to branch out to do other properties, and he’s also going to work with Tucson FAA officials to be allowed to fly in the neighborhoods within 5 miles of Tucson International Airport.

Tom Salomone, a Coral Gables, Fla.-based real estate professional who is president-elect of the National Association of Realtors, said his group will work with the FAA to make sure association members use drones responsibly.

Salomone, who takes leadership of the association in November, said UAVs are the next technological extension for expanding real estate sales.

“For 100 years, consumers dealt with Realtors buying real estate through multiple-listing books,” Salomone said. “But then, all of a sudden, something called the computer and the Internet were introduced, and the consumer has access to that makes the experience for him or her even better. The Realtor has to adapt to become more professional. Drones are going to be the next technological advancement, and we’re all going to need to adapt.”

The head of the Greater Las Vegas Association of Realtors views the arrival of unmanned aerial vehicle technology to his industry as a benefit to the customer more than tool for Realtors.

“Images and pictures are always so important in the presentation of a home,” said Keith Lyman, president of the local association. “When you can present the unique aspect or angle of a house, especially luxury listings, it’s huge. If you can show golf-course vistas and the kinds of views they would have, it’s huge.”

Lyman said a number of his members who are tech-savvy and see the value of displaying images have been pressing to speed up the process of being able to use drones to produce aerial shots of their properties. Some are frustrated that they can’t be used when a property is far away from flight patterns and places where people gather.

Lyman said when association leaders gather in Washington in May, they will learn more about the process of applying for waivers.

SOME ALREADY DOING IT

They also are likely to talk about privacy concerns, the issue that makes consumers reticent to embrace camera-carrying drones.

“There’s always going to be the one idiot that flies 600 feet in the air to get a view of the whole backyard that screws it up for everybody,” said James “Heidi” Fleitz, vice president of sales for ArrowData, a commercial drone company that recently started operations in Southern Nevada.

Fleitz said there are plenty of real estate professionals who are flying — all of them illegally — but they’re flying conservatively and inconspicuously, maybe 20 feet high to get a view that shows the vistas from a particular property.

“Most of them are doing it, and most of them are getting paid to do it,” said Fleitz, who said the majority of illegal operations involve sales of multimillion-dollar properties.

Trudeau said he is very conscious about the privacy issue and heavily edits his images before publishing them online. He will make sure that images of a neighbor’s backyard are cropped from a photo or, if that’s impossible, he will use a filter to blur the image to protect the neighbor’s property.

Lyman, too, is sensitive to the privacy issue but figures that’s a conversation that can be had when the use of drones by Realtors becomes more commonplace.

“It’s definitely a concern,” he said. “But it can be a problem even without pictures from drones.

“How do you protect the privacy of a neighbor’s property if you’re showing a house with a second-story deck that looks out over someone else’s backyard or pool? That’s going to happen, but the privacy matter is something we’re definitely going to need to address.”

Contact reporter Richard N. Velotta at rvelotta@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893. Find him on Twitter: @RickVelotta

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