US Airspace Is Closed To Unmanned Drones Doing Real Estate Photography

January 29th, 2013

UAVsAbout a year ago I did a post on an incident where the FAA shutdown Rusty Freeman’s real estate UAV photography business in the LA area. Has anything changed in the last year?

I’ve put a fair amount of time researching what the current laws are regarding the operation of commercial UAVs (also called UASs) and I’m struck with how little clear information is available on this subject. The only two clear data points I have on this subject is Rusty Freeman’s case and the case of Daniel Gárate that Nick Winfield, of the New York Times reported in Feb of 2012. Both of these cases of UAV real estate photographers being shutdown were in the LA area but I think the same thing could happen anywhere in the US. Has anyone else out there been shutdown?

Here is a summary of my understanding of the status of commercial UAV regulations in the US as of Jan 2013. Other countries have different regulations:

  1. All hobbyists are exempt from the following.
  2. If you are shooting video or photography using RC UAVs for commercial or promotional purposes it’s illegal unless you have what’s called a COA (Certificate Of Authorization from the FAA). To get a COA you and your UAV must under go a certification process with the FAA.
  3. FAA only appears to issue COAs for government, research facilities, for the purposes of search and rescue, military ops, law enforcement and scientific research.
  4. Here is the list of organizations that have a COAs.
  5. Some FAA regulations talk about a COA certification process for UAVs and Pilots but there appears to be no process for getting one. Basically the FAA has been directed by congress to create one.
  6. In Feb 2012 congress passed and President Obama signed the FAA reauthorization bill which funds and authorizes the FAA to establish guidelines for integrating UAVs into the US airspace by Sept 2015.

Summary: If you are using a UAV to shoot video or stills for your real estate clients or even just to promote your own company you’re doing so without FAA approval and you’re subject to being shutdown and potentially fined. This situation may not be resolved until Sept 2015 or after when the results of FAA reauthorization act are implemented.

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22 Responses to “US Airspace Is Closed To Unmanned Drones Doing Real Estate Photography”

  • USA … land of the free. buhahaha.

  • In Australia you need an Operators Certificate and a Controllers certificate. Part of getting these requires that you do the theory side of a Private Pilots license for your intended UAV (fixed wing or rotary wing) I am aware of one company here Australia being cautioned over using a UAV without proper certification. CASA are the regulatory body and Phil Presgrave is the contact if anyone is interested in getting certified. It will cost you around $10 – $15k to get certfied here Australia. Without it you can’t make it money and Casa are shutting companies down who fy without certfication.

  • Sounds like the only way to do aerial RE photography legally is the photographer getting in a plane or gyro. Wow. Regulations rule! At least they don’t stifle innovation, oh wait…

  • It seems that a lot of federal agencies have laws, but no regulations to help people follow the law. Until a specific set of certification rules or flying rules are mandated by the FAA, if we need arial photography, we will hire a pilot or use a lift. Since in 5 years we have only had 5 requests for real arial photography, this is not too big of an issue for us.

  • Welcome to the USSR. I could understand some regulation to insure a basic knowledge since the public is at risk. Maybe even a registration to be sure its not a terrorist (even though he call himself a hobbyist and do what he wants to already) Some sort of insurance requirement as well but this is truly ridiculous! And 2015 is also ridiculous! I dont have a dog in the fight at all but this yet another example of the government postponing progress until they can figure out a way to get their piece of the pie.

  • Here is a story about the FAA Reauthorization Act
    Given that the military industrial complex is bringing 30,000 drones back from all those dirty wars it is probably not going to want any competition and shut down any drone use by private individuals.

  • It just amazes me that the FAA put their drone stamp on these platforms? If you are an RC/Aircraft enthusiast you can put a small camera in one of those and it’s no problem. You’ll wait years before the FAA puts their blessing on these “drones”.

  • […] a helicopter to photograph high profile buildings and properties. However, according to the Photography for Real Estate website using these UAV’s is actually illegal and can cost you a fine and even risk being […]

  • Actually, it seems pretty reasonable, to me. It’s new technology, and if you can’t think of at least a few serious ways in which it could be mis-used, you’re not trying very hard.
    FAA is saying, OK, let’s not step on anyone’s freedom to pursue a hobby (even though a hobbyist is more likely to crash through my window than a pro), but before we have commercial operators deploying fleets of these things all over an urban area where there is massive potential for accidents, privacy invasions, and outright maliciousness, we ought to spend some time figuring out sensible regulations. I for one do not want the low-altitude airspace over my head to be some wild west environment. We regulate cars and driving for the same reasons. I don’t want an “anything goes” situation on the roads, either. I want speed limits, safety standards, and proof of financial responsibility (i.e. insurance) when it comes to cars. Ditto for drones.

  • Another perspective I heard from a friend in the L.A. area was this:
    As the directive applies only to commercial drones it follows that the impetus is a commercial one.
    The people supplying helicopter services to the film companies in L.A. apparently saw a danger to their businesses and put the bee in the FAA bonnet. It is not about terrorism or public safety but a barrier to entry placed by those owners of millions of dollars of aerial equipment and vehicles.
    I also understand that the LAPD is tasked with actively identifying drones that appear to be engaged in anything other than pleasure (hobbyist) flying.

    While I agree with Scott on the need for some sensible regulation of drones, as it stands it really does seem that it is about creating a barrier to a very dangerous competitor.

  • I usually hire a Wallenda to do my aerial shots. Nik did a great job for me down in Sarasota just yesterday!

  • Totally stupid. I mean ok, it the “UAV” is the size of a military drone ok i understand. But otherwise I think I would just ignore these fools.

  • @kiara- They may be fools, but you ignore them at your own peril.

  • I am not sure this is accurate. According to the FAA link at the end of my message, if an RC aircraft stays under 400ft, line-of-sight, and avoids noise nuisances and generally ‘plays-it-safe’ I believe you can shoot video (if whomever you are photographing agrees to it). Where is the legislation against this? Check out this FAA “Advisory Circular”. I believe there is a common misconceptions that people think Drones and UAS are the same thing. The two are getting closer, but there are differences.

  • @shooa – If you look at Rusty Freeman’s experience a year ago:

    Rusty was operating exclusively under 400 ft and was explicitly shutdown by the FAA. Rusty had a pilots license and had a direct discussion with the FAA and as a result sold all his UAV equipment. Daniel Gárate had a similar experience.

  • So the moral of the story: Enjoy architectural UAV aerial photography as a “hobby”, making it available it for free, but welcoming suggested handsome tips.

  • I have contacted Yonder Blue Films out of Atlanta about some shoots this spring. I asked him about this and his response follows:
    The FAA issue is a bit of a grey area, and there’s a lot of misleading information online. As long as you aren’t within 3 miles of an airport and we keep our multirotor under 400 feet and in sight at all times, there’s no real issue. If we fly in a public area, you’ll need to notify the local police department. Just don’t call it a drone because that is a different type of aircraft. We’ve flown in several different states and even in downtown Atlanta with no issue whatsoever.

    all the best,
    Ben Rowland
    Yonder Blue Films

  • @Jason- Yes, I’ve heard similar responses from others in different states that are still flying UAVs. Grey area is a good characterization. My guess is since there aren’t real clear laws on this if you make sure the local law enforcement stays happy, you will be fine. But as with the cases in LA if there is some reason local law enforcement wants to shut you down the FAA will back them up.

  • Thank you for your work on this. It saves the rest of us time and trouble. I have a client asking me if I can offer this aerial service and I don’t. With your work here, nor will I.

  • No, its still illegal like it has been for many years to fly a UAV for commercial use. If your going to do it, it has to be for personal use!

  • […] a helicopter to photograph high profile buildings and properties. However, according to the Photography for Real Estate website using these UAV’s is actually illegal and can cost you a fine and even risk being shut […]

  • I’ll continue to use RC quadrotors with cameras on them. The FAA can kiss my ass. I’m not flying in airspace where any aircraft flying within the legal regulations of the US are going to be flying. Legally an aircraft operator cannot fly below 500 feet over populated areas. I’m not entering the 500 ft area so it’s none of their business what I do.

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