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How Long Will Real Estate Photography UAVs For Hire Have To Fly In Legal Limbo?

Published: 11/11/2013
By: larry

Apparently the short answer is for another two years. Last Thursday the FAA released a Road Map document that generally lays out a general plan for Integration of Civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems in the National Airspace System (it's two years late on this milestone). To me, the language of the Road Map is disappointingly fuzzy and general. There has been a bunch of articles in the media in the last few days about this Road Map. Most try to talk about all UAVs at the same time. Small UAVs are very different than large ones. The article I like the best is the post by Adi Robertson at

Here is a short summary of the major things the road map establishes relating to the real estate photography/videography industry:

  • A certification process for existing UAV aircraft  under 55 lbs by then end of 2014.
  • Certification guidelines for small UAV pilots by the end of 2014.
  • Rules for small UAVs (55 lbs and under) codified buy the end of 2015.
  • FAA rules are not going to address privacy issues.

Adi's post points out three incidents in the last year involving safety issues caused by small UAVs in populated areas. These kind of incidents will raise the public awareness to small UAV use and make this whole process much more difficult as time goes on with out well defined rules and processes.

I think the FAA is making a big mistake by taking so long to get a certification process, pilot certification and rules in place. They should put those all in place now and refine them as necessary. They are making this too difficult!

11 comments on “How Long Will Real Estate Photography UAVs For Hire Have To Fly In Legal Limbo?”

  1. @Larry, I agree with you that the process is scheduled to take much longer than seems necessary. There are years of experience dealing with piloted aircraft that will be useful in drafting guidelines for UAV pilots and RC groups and associations can be consulted regarding their safety regulations which have worked well over the years for that hobby. At least the issue of privacy is not going to cloud the process. There are plenty of privacy laws already on the books to handle the peeping toms. The question of insurance will be of great importance. This will be a new category to cover and they don't have industry statistics (actuarial tables?) to guide them in the pricing of policies. I will wager that premiums will be high until a good track record is established. If there continues to be news reports of injuries and deaths, insurance might be too expensive to make RE photography via UAV's practical.

    There will also be regulations promulgated at the state and local levels.

  2. Hate to be the contrarian, but they will spend all this time, failing to meet deadlines, and finally come out with regulations where they are overwhelmed and lack the manpower to enforce. Kind of like exists currently and they are "selective" on enforcement. It will be like the old radio license was the you wanted to operate a CB. Remember that, and did they really check? While the FAA will understandably focus on the larger and more powerful drones that can interact well into commercial airspace, they won't have manpower for the lower airspace to go around and check if everyone passed a course, has insurance, and flys enough to remain "current." It will only become relevant (or apparent) after the fact when there is an accident and assessing responsibility. In the meantime, the mere existence of regulations only serves to delude the public into believing that something is being done. Look at it another way...commercial photographers should have a business license and insurance. But do they, particularly the freelance run-n-gunner guy with a camera - and is the public even concerned with it.

  3. @LarryG - I agree that the FAA is not going to be able to monitor small commercial UAV activities. It is likely to be local authorities acting under state and local laws that will be the ones handing out tickets and confiscating equipment. Not that confiscation is actually legal, but that sort of thing happens a lot and it's useless to argue with a LEO. It will wind up as a cat and mouse game where operators are only likely to be caught if something goes wrong or somebody makes a complaint. An operator that is licensed may take exception to competition moving in that can offer a reduced rate since they are not paying for permits and insurance. A call to the police or city code enforcement may be made. Code enforcement may take a keen interest as many cities require any business operating within city limits to possess a business license for that city even if they are based in another town. There is a good chance that the UAV operator does not hold a business license in that city if they are operating without licenses and insurance. The fines may stack up for somebody operating on the fringes. Many people don't know about city's requiring a license to operate in their town and believe that if they have a business license in the city where they are based they are covered. City code enforcement generally targets contractors as their vehicles are easy to spot and a job site with several trades working may turn up one or two that don't have a license (business or contractors). If they are driving around and spot a UAV, they may stop and check your papers.

    Compliance with regulations will be subject to how much fines may be and how likely one is to be caught. If the fine is always $100 and you are only likely to get caught a once or twice a year, it may be cheaper to pay the fines rather than get legal. If the fines are $1000 for a first offense and rise with each subsequent offense with the chance of getting caught upped to 2 or 3 times a year, it may make financial sense to have a pilots license, obtain the required permits and hold suitable insurance. Even if fines were low and getting caught a rare thing, one would certainly lose face if they had to call the RE agent and explain why aerial shots won't be possible. Even if there isn't any active enforcement, if something goes wrong (tangled in the power lines, somebody gets hurt, somebody complains) there could be a significant downside. Cities love for their code enforcement to write tickets and usually hire absolute (*&^tards to work in that department. The city keeps most if not all of the fine and doesn't have to pay judicial fees unless they have to file on somebody who doesn't pay up. With traffic tickets they have to split the take with the local court. It's a nice little money maker and they are always on the look out for more ordinances that have the ring of protecting the public. ( Yeah, I've tangled with code enforcement before)

    We'll have to keep tracking this and see how it gets implemented at the local level where it affects us the most. Was it a city in Colorado that was talking about permission to shoot UAV's out of the sky, or was that somewhere else. Maybe it was a joke, but there are stranger laws still on the books. Come to think of it, most of what DC churns out is pretty strange.

  4. I like the Cooler's response 😉
    All kidding aside, I understand where using drones in RE photography would give one an edge in this competitive market, but, I worry about privacy issues. Who's to say someone won't abuse the purpose & fly their drone onto some random property, for whatever reason... i.e. paparazzi spying on celebrities, it creeps me out.

  5. @robin B. - You worry too much. Using a UAV to play peeping tom is pretty obvious. They are not exactly very quiet when they are hauling around payload such as a camera which gives away their use quickly. I'm sure there are some lowlifes that will invade the privacy of Hollywood stars to sell images to The Enquirer and TMZ, but other than that, it's a lot cheaper to put a camera on a stick. Teenage/fraternity pranks? Yep, but technology or not, that's going to continue. Random property? Highly doubtful. People and companies using a UAV for business purposes are not the problem. Right now it is perfectly legal to fly a UAV with a camera payload as long as it is not for commercial purposes. Paparazzi aren't exactly known for being model citizens and the entertainment press isn't much concerned about how images are obtained.

  6. @ken

    The model of UAV procedures and fines will probably model Canada. Our system has been in place for a while.

    The fines for operating commercially without approval are $25000 for the individual and $5000 to the company each violation.

  7. Who gives the approval and what does it take to get it?

    LA Film, along with the LA Sheriffs dept. sent a letter to the CA Real Estate Association informing them that Aerial photography of property for sale is against the law punishable by a $100K fine and up to 5 years in prison. They also went on to say that you needed a film permit to photograph houses professionally which is total BS.

    My point is that this has become [apart from a bad joke] a political football for bureaucrats to make money. I realize this must be boring for people out side of the US but we need to get back to the constitution.

    "It will be found an unjust and unwise jealousy to deprive a man of his natural liberty upon the supposition he may abuse it."

    Who the hell elected anyone at LA Film and gave them the right to infringe on my civil liberties?

    "When the people fear the government there is tyranny. When the government fears the the people there is liberty."

    These two quotes were from people who new a little about tyranny, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

    This debate over regulating commercial AP from RC's is unnecessary and unconstitutional. Of coarse I'm not sure that matters anymore.

  8. Agree that the FAA is waaay behind the eight ball with regards to the entire 'drone' industry. The future use of drones in every industry (hobby, film, realty, public safety, etc., etc., etc.) is an unstoppable tidal wave that the FAA would be well advised to get on board with a become a part of the solution. There are many issues to be worked out and scrambling to catch up with the public is no way to make well thought out policy.

    And to all of those who erroneously believe that because of safety of privacy concerns, drones shouldn't be used in public situations are going to be sadly disappointed. We receive daily emails from people interested in how they envision the ready-to-fly quadcopters that we sell in their everyday professional lives. Fracking, power line inspecting, wind turbine generators, realtors, roofers, search and rescue, just to name a few.

    As I mentioned above. This is a tidal wave that is soon to come like a torrent to a neighborhood near you.


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