Can Realtors use camera-equipped drones to shoot photos and videos of property? The short answer appears to be no, not legally, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
The long answer is a bit more interesting.
In general, the FAA has the authority to regulate things that fly — anything “from the ground up,” as it explains on its mythbusting page. That includes drones.
That doesn’t mean you always need FAA approval to put something into the air. You can buy a cheap model rocket at Toys R Us and launch it from your backyard without approval, or zip a model airplane around the park.
That’s because the FAA has model-aircraft guidelines that let you fly things below 400 feet (as long as you aren’t within three miles of an airport, or near populated areas).
But drones are a different matter. The FAA has some different rules for these “Unmanned Aircraft Systems” or UASs. Here’s the important part of those rules:
You may not fly a UAS for commercial purposes by claiming that you’re operating according to the Model Aircraft guidelines […] Commercial operations are only authorized on a case-by-case basis. A commercial flight requires a certified aircraft, a licensed pilot and operating approval.
The question is, does “commercial purposes” include Realtors? Yes, according to the FAA. By definition, it says, Realtors using drones are using them for commercial purposes. Ditto for any drone-flying services a Realtor might hire.
As the New York Post reported, the agency is looking into brokerages that use drones. The Realtors in these cases claimed that drone-photo flights aren’t commercial use because they don’t charge their clients for the photos; it’s part of their overall service. (Dome drone-flying services tried to claim they don’t charge for the drone flights, but for “video editing”.) But the FAA isn’t buying it.
Realtors using drones to photograph properties are using them for commercial purposes, and thus must have a license, it says.
But then things get complicated.
In June 2013, the FAA fined Raphael Pirker $10,000 for operating a drone around the UVA campus illegally — “in a careless or reckless manner.”(He was shooting a video for the medical school.)
Pirker appealed, and a federal judge ruled in his favor, saying that the FAA couldn’t enforce its drone rules because it didn’t go through the proper procedure to create those rules.
Inman News reacted to that ruling by saying it “[paved] the way for broader adoption of drones by businesses including real estate agents, brokers and real estate marketing firms.”
Not so fast, says the FAA. See, it appealed the ruling immediately, which (it says), means the judge’s decision has been stayed and “that means all rules are still enforced and the FAA is still enforcing them,” according to the agency.
So, at this point, according to the FAA, if it learns about unauthorized use of drones, it will either call or visit the pilot and ask him or her to stop. If that doesn’t work, it will send a warning letter. If that doesn’t work, it could pursue a cease-and-desist order.
The FAA has also recently issued this notice of its intent to issue clarifying regulations.