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FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 Will Likely End UAV Based Real Estate Photography

In: ,
Published: 13/02/2012
By: larry

This article appeared in USA TODAY last week. Apparently, On Monday, the Senate sent to President Obama legislation that would require the FAA to devise ways to safely allow commercial UAVs (UAVs with DSLRs) to operate in US airspace within three years.

This gives formality to the schedule the FAA was already working to. The good news is the FAA if this bill is signed the FAA will be required to make it happen. The bad news is they don't have to do it until Sept 30, 2015. The legislation (“FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012“) also calls on the FAA to establish rules for smaller drones weighing up to 55 pounds within 27 months (May 2014). The schedule for all drones is Sept. 30, 2015.

Can you believe this? Congress and the President (if he signs HR 658) in this sluggish economy are willing to shutdown a whole industry for 3 years while they figure out how to regulate it. They are shutting down more than just real estate photographers using UAVs but all the companies building these devices and using them for any purpose. Shutting down an industry for 3 years to improve regulation is like saying, "Oh, we have a problem with banking regulation, let's shut down the banks for 3 years while we get this regulation problem fixed".

At the same time commercial UAV operators are shutdown by the FAA, the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) released a press release last week effectively thanking Senators John Mica (R-FL), Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX), Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Tom Petri (R-WI) for exempting hobbyists from the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. This completely defies logic!

A second article on this subject last week by Alan Levin at suggests that "The agency will likely approve only unpopulated areas and require that the drones stay within a few hundred feet off the ground and in sight of the operator". The unpopulated part, if approved, will essentially shutdown UAV based real estate photography for good.

20 comments on “FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 Will Likely End UAV Based Real Estate Photography”

  1. Can we protest this? I wonder if we as an industry can get a special exemption for line-of-sight photography?

    Heck it just worked for Verizon and someone else. Now of course that's commercial, but...

    Alternatively the White House will officially respond to any petition that gets 25,000 signatures within 30 days. A tough threshold, but if we could get our agent customers to get involved as well that 25k number isn't so bad. And NAR *loves* to lobby.


  2. Serious question. If a line was tied to the drone that attached it to the operator, would it be classified differently? I'm thinking possibly a strong gauge fishing line or similar.

  3. Provide a link to the petition so we can get going. This is another absurd case of over regulation without complete knowledge .... Another hallmark of this congress!

  4. Shawn, what about a concept along the lines of a weather balloon? We already know they can hold a camera, run it up on a 50-100 foot tether so you can retrieve it easily.. Im sure its a bigger PIA than a remote control drone, but should circumvent the "law".

    Heck I can buy an Estes model rocket with a camera in it that fires frames during the whole launch and shoot it off just about anywhere I care to lose it, and that uses a flammable propellent with no "steering "! I would be willing to bet some RE photographers who already own the drones/gear gear will simply stop doing public advertising of the work and just do it on the down low for established clients anyway. The risk is certainly high, but like any industry that is regulated out of legally doing business, demand will still drive people to do it illegally. I can see the loophole now, "I take these exterior photos for fun, as a hobbyist and give them away free to the home owner, but I charge the RE agent $200 more than I did last year for interior photos 😉 "

  5. @Shawn- The Cooler commented on the last post on this subject that there is an easy way around this:

    AJ Hackett, the king of Bungee jumping, for a time was unable to charge for Bungee jumps due to government regulations – so he offered free bungee jumps to everyone – catch was the person needed to buy an AJ Hackett Bungee Jump t-shirt – no t-shirt – no jump. The master stroke was that the t-shirts cost $120

    So just sell expensive t-shirts and do aerial shots for free... not sure how this would go over in a court. Anyone willing to test it out?

  6. @larry- the problem is that it's still for commercial use; the images will show up in a real estate ad, which is commercial in nature... otherwise the agents could still get away with just doing it themselves.

    I like the tethering idea... really nothing more than a pole in tension, rather than compression ;~)

  7. @Casey & @Shawn - I don't see why putting a tether or line on a UAV would change it's classification. Putting a string on it won't change it to a kite! It's still going to be a Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. My guess is that the FAA will call a balloon or kite with a tether used commercially as a UAV. Although I could be wrong, they seem to be using a totally different kind of logic that I've ever experienced.

  8. Aside from announcing a schedule and an actual requirement to finally set some new rules, what has really changed?
    Under the current regulations, there is no permissible commercial use of any UAS.
    For something that is already not permitted, it's amazing how many companies are not only doing it, but actually advertising it.
    The media coverage of the issue will likely stop most public marketing efforts, but do little to stop actual flights outside of busy urban or high profile areas.
    I would expect to see fewer flights over Miami Beach, but no change over luxury properties in less congested areas.

    The first court challenge of what qualifies as "Commercial Use" will be interesting. US laws are funny at times. Consider the drug laws (a strangely parallel example) regulating marijuana. Federal law prohibits the sale and possession of the plant, but there is no law against having THC in your system. Is it really possible that it is illegal to commercially operate any UAS, but ok to have the photos on your website? Yup. Laws are specific, and in this case, the lack of any bite regarding the use of the photos renders the current policy somewhat ineffective.

  9. @Jason,

    The downsides to a balloon is that you don't have much control over where it's pointed and what if you want to get an angle that you can't stand beneath?


    I don't know this for sure, but I was speculating that by tethering the device to a man (woman), it would not be classified as Unmanned.

  10. @ shawn -- Oh hi Mr. FAA official, meet "Man", the name of my trained hamster who is in this small scale helicopter when it is airborne. Thus officially making it a "manned" vehicle. lol I am sure someone will try it.

    Like Dan said, I think it will be one of those things where the people who are already doing this will mostly just keep doing it, only slightly more under the radar than now. I mean if the Texas Railroad commission went after every photographer in the state for trespassing, who had pics of a senior on train tracks on their website, There would be no room in the jail for the other criminals. Prohibition didnt stop alcohol manufacturing or consumption because the demand was still there. SOMEONE will provide the service if people are buying. Once the image is taken and the photographer is gone, proving it was done with a UAV and not a pole on a truck without a photo/video of the UAV in action will be a REALLY tough case.

  11. Hello Larry, thank you once again for making a post on this subject, I was waiting to see the comments before making my comment.

    We are going back to square one, flying our own helicopter or fixed wing aircraft for aerial photography and video for the film industry & Realtors. Here are the facts: The Robinson R-44 burns about 14 gallons an hour, 16 gallons with the rear doors off, at my local price $5.80 a gallon, plus tag on $200. an hour for maintenance reserves and pilot, close to $300. an hour for our helicopter.

    The RC Helicopter for the film industry we were getting $3,000 to $4,000 a day, the only trade off will be the close up car chases vs now at 200 feet above the ground [AGL], can you say a long len's is coming again into fashion.

    Real Estate Aerial photos, with the RC are as stated "dead" for now, till 2015 or beyond. We can take a Real Estate Aerial photo for the higher end homes, no problem as they will continue to pay, $1500. or more which is easy for this class of Realtor to pay, plus video fly over too.

    The RC was a tool we had to help the Realtor for a few hundred dollars, which they will now have to collect a more from the seller for marketing.

    Aerial Photography dead, no, not even close, they [Realtors] will continue for higher end properties, film productions, music videos, feature films, no problem, but all of us will see it as a small increase at the box office with the price of pop-corn going up too.

    Cheers, from Rusty, and we are sill flying !! Got several booking today,

  12. I don't think the comparison with banking is really apt. Banking is essential to our economy, and UAVs are not. Also, UAVs are a new industry; so, while this will inconvenience some, it would be far more difficult to try to do this once the industry was more established, so I think it is better to try to get a handle on it now. While we no doubt all wish the bureaucracy would be able to do their work more quickly, let us hope that they will at least use the time to do the job well. I know, I know. 🙂

    Also, regarding amateur versus commercial use, there is a good point that, so far, amateur use tends to be in out-of-the-way places. However, I wonder if the appeal of these devices will encourage amateurs to start using them in places that they shouldn't.

  13. I should have added the RCAPA proposed guidelines that were placed in front of the first ARC commitee

    The second, sort of secret one was only found out after we made a Freedom of Information Request.

    A UAS BTW is something that can be controlled in three dimensions, so kites and balloons are generally exempt. There are some rules for them requiring cut down devices in the event of a fly away.

  14. Just play with their own rules.
    They say they forbid all COMMERCIAL UAV's. Recreational UAV's can be used without any problem even a 10meter heli is all legal and they can't do nothing about it. Just offer the photos without "commercializing" them.

  15. @Pedro,

    I'd say once you charge for the content of the photos or for anything to get them, that "commercializes" them, plus the agent's are going to use them for commercial purposes - not like you're just going to give them to them and they hang them on their wall at home.

  16. It's pretty clear that people posting here have never had to deal with the laws of physics, much less the FAA.

    Here are the physics issues: putting a line on a helicopter is going to make it crash, either because it _will_ get tangled in the rotors (see Murphy's Law) or it will cause an instability due to its weight and/or tension on the line, that then results in a crash. Just get a balloon or a kite, put a remote video viewfinder and controllable gimbal on the camera, and snap away to your hearts' content - it will be _much_ cheaper than any unpiloted rotorcraft carrying a commercial-grade camera.

    As for the FAA, federal law requires that _all_ aircraft be operated "without hazard to persons or property on the surface", in addition to avoiding other airborne aircraft. It costs millions of dollars for even the least expensive commercially-built piloted aircraft to undergo mandatory certification by the FAA, and pilot training ranges from about $5,000 for non-commercial flight, to tens of thousands for commercial flight, with helicopter certification costing about three times as much in each category due to flight complexity. Unpiloted aircraft manufacturers and operators are going to have the additional burden of _proving_ that they can perform emergency landings safely with no potential harm to people and things on the ground, much less other aircraft and people in the air. Even with all of the advances in computing automation and artificial intelligence (which we in that industry call "artificial incompetence 🙂 it's not possible to _prove_ that every possible situation has been accounted for, much less that there will be a viable response by the unpiloted aircraft and operator. Plus, that has to be accomplished for _every_ model of such aircraft, and that will become very expensive very quickly. The only thing more expensive than aviation or computing is combining those two disciplines.

    Then, there's the legal mandate for public safety, which overrides everything else discussed here, and the insurance companies will charge premiums that will make piloted helicopter operations seem positively cheap in comparison to unpiloted aircraft flight due to the quite foreseeable and expensive risks. For example, unpiloted aircraft don't provide the operator views of other aircraft that may be in the vicinity. Since unpiloted aircraft operators will be legally responsible for avoiding airborne collisions just as much as pilots in aircraft, the risks are much higher and, therefore, much more expensive to insure.

    BTW, in addition to dealing with the FAA, good luck going up against the quite deep legal coffers of the Airline Pilots Association, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, Experimental Aircraft Association, piloted aircraft manufacturers groups, airlines, airline pilots unions, aircraft insurers, 600,000+ pilots, and various and sundry other organizations that have been keeping the skies much safer than movement on the ground for over a century. They'll be able to keep this in the courts literally forever.

    Congress and the President can pass all the laws they want, but, they do so in the face of more fundamental laws of physics and morals (e.g., public safety), so, this just isn't going to "fly", pun fully intended.

  17. No idea how I ran into this but, when I was a kid, late 70's, we had Estees rockets w/camera. No idea how your systems wok-1 property or a route with many, for a single aerial view go into front lawn and launch rocket cam. Multiple altitude, no real directional, hella cheap. Just a wander by thought.

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