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Real Estate Photographer Gear Of The Month For March 2014

Published: 11/03/2014
By: larry

DJIPhantom2Because of the NTSB judge's ruling on March 6, it sounds like there are a lot of real estate photographers thinking more seriously about purchasing one of these or if they already have a RCMA they are thinking about moving forward with commercial use of it. I think the DJI Phantom 2 should be this months choice for gear of the month.

Many commenters have pointed out the DJI Phantom 2 is not the top of the line RCMA for real estate photography. Yea, but it's probably the most popular because it's out of the box ready and easy to fly and has a gimbal mount for the GoPro H3 and it's well under $1,000. You still need a GoPro H3, which is another $400. Plus there's a bunch of great tutorials and info on the net about how to use this particular gear, such as Russell Preston Brown's Take flight series. Russell Brown tells you everything you need to know to fly the DJI Phantom and process the results.

While things this look better this week for using RCMA commercially than it has before this ruling I'd like to point out a couple of cautions:

  • The FAA has appealed the ruling to the full NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board)  which means the ruling is technically "stayed" or on hold until the NTSB rules. But, as Peter Sachs points out, "it will lose in the same manner as it did in the ALJ’s decision. FAA’s stance defies logic." However, it is remotely possible that the NTSB could make some emergency decree designed to save us all from the perils of RCMA. In which case you couldn't use your new Phantom. But as Chuck Spaulding commented on another post today, the FAA cares more about 777's disappearing over the US than people shooting video of houses with RCMA.
  • When laws are created to regulate commercial RCMA (perhaps as long as 1 or 2 years) there may be a lot of hoops to jump through to become approved to fly commercial RCMA. Or your state could come up with laws restricting RCMA use. Either of these could make your RCMA real estate business more difficult.

In the mean time, if you fly RCMA, be cautious and fly safe. Don't give the FAA more reasons to make the upcoming regulations strict.

Update March 12: Note that Dan Milstein below in comments reports that he has been unable to find insurance that reasonably covers against RMCA risks. He says, "Checking out the above mentioned insurance, it appears to be completely worthless. The policy requires that operators “agree to operate all UAV equipment within the guidelines of the RCAPA organization and the FAA.” Note that it does not say “Regulations.” Worse, RCAPA dictates that operators must avoid flying over persons or property.... I welcome the introduction of real insurance for commercial operators. I just don’t see it yet."


28 comments on “Real Estate Photographer Gear Of The Month For March 2014”

  1. Have a look also at the DJI Visage, it comes with its own camera and has an altimeter read out on the control unit. Gizmag did a story on it a couple of weeks ago. I fly a Phantom and love it, but the Visage sounds like its gunna be an awesome piece of kit.

  2. As a commercial helicopter pilot myself, I've tried to tell people that it's not as easy as it looks. Then I flew my friend's DJI Phantom and it IS easy to fly. But that doesn't mean you will be making videos the first week you get the craft. You still need to spend hours of time becoming familiar with flying to the point where it becomes second nature. I'm serious, plan to get about 50 hours of flight time before you start thinking you are Baron Von Richthofen (the Red Baron) crossed with Steven Spielberg. My brother got a copter and flew it in a big barn for a few hours until he got enough conference to fly it outside and promptly crashed it, never to fly again.

  3. Been flying for eight months using a DJI Phantom with a Nikon J1 under for high quality still pix (interval timer mode) . When I learnt to fly in the air force, my squadron leader flight instructor told us "there are those with fifty hours who think they know everything: there are those with five hundred hours who know they know everything: there are those with five thousand hours who know they'll never know everything. " Same. I have possibly sixty hours on DJIs. I have nine batteries... ( sometimes I do four jobs in a day) I crashed the thing last week thirty feet up a tree. Took an hour to recover. Thought I knew everything. I didn't. But life goes on. I'm about to investigate a hexacopter which may give better results. We'll see.

  4. This is great news that potentially opens the doors for us, but I'm still concerned about liability. From the sounds of it, insurance companies aren't too keen about this, and if I was to wreck and damage something at a property, or worse yet, hurt someone, it could ruin me financially.

    Also, does this only work with a Hero 3? I have a Gen2 GoPro and was wondering if it would work. I could see doing some awesome nature and scenery videos, too.

  5. I have a big Y6 with gimbals on that I fly a Canon 650d(think T4i in USA) on and then small qaudcopter with gopro 3 on it. All of them are rigged with full FPV gear - I fly with goggles on and the client can see on external screen what I am seeing.
    But it is still everytime I start my big machine that my heart goes racing and hope nothing goes wrong as not only worth $5000 dollars of gear flying, but also 5kg flying in the sky. 70% of the time I use the quadcopter as that fulfills my clients needs and feel a lot easier flying it around

  6. I have a company that develops MR's based around different cameras, predominantly three models:

    The smallest Quad is for a GoPro with or without a gimbal, the same model quad with more powerful motors to lift an NEX sized camera with 2 axis gimbal.

    A Y6 or Hex to carry an NEX with 3-axis gimbal or GH3/60D with 2-axis gimbal.

    An X8 for larger camera's like the 5d3 and up.

    They range in price between ~$2500 to $12,000+, the difference in price is the components used and the options available which are too numerous to mention here. I'm not trying to sell anything, not yet anyway, but provide a little insight to what some of the differences between a hobby grade MR like the Phantom and professional MR's.

    Phantoms are great "starter" MR's that can meet the needs of many real estate photographers for a while. They are relatively easy to fly, pretty much plug-n-play and very durable, the downside is that DJI products have a spotty safety record [at best], the rigid frame prevents this platform from scaling so that it will only ever be capable of carrying a GoPro sized camera with a 2-Axis gimbal and even at that its close to or exceeds its max AUW.

    At the core of this its simple physics, power to weight ratio, control and stability all together on one platform means safety, add to that dependability, efficiency, highly configurable and easy to setup and use means profitability.

    Safety is at the core of developing our purpose built MR's. We match the power, props and motors to a specific camera and gimbal weight so that there is a 50-60% margin of error and to get the most efficiency [flight time]. Using quality motors and props not only reduced vibrations and improves efficiency but also reliability and durability. As you move up the MR food chain we start adding components for redundancy further increasing safety.

    There are a ton of variables and options that can be configured for your specific needs, this too increases safety. DJI, the maker of the Phantom also offers professional MR's, you'll find that they are in the same price range mentioned earlier.

    I have spent a considerable amount of money and time developing commercial grade MR's for professional aerial photography. Safety shouldn't be a yuppy online debate it is something that has to be designed into the MR from its inception. AP is an adjunct to the Phantom so the safety concerns for commercial AP, that have been incessantly debated online are not really addressed.

    I guess it could be characterized this way, its a little like deciding to use a 60D or a 5d3 for professional photography. There would be comparisons between crop sensor and FF, resolution etc., but for me the 5d3 is the first camera I think I'll literally wear out. I have shot all over the world with it in all kinds of conditions and it has never overheated or had any sort of problem. I trust it 100%. I have been on projects with other photographers, some with 60D's, and I don't try to convince them to upgrade, I just swap camera's with them for an hour or so and they never want to give my 5d3 back. The same is true if I go to the local flying field and someone there is flying a Phantom or S800 I just let them fly mine, you can see them start to relax almost immediately and start to enjoy flying and they don't want to give it back either.

    In spite of the FAA this is an exciting time to get involved in this burgeoning profession. I have spoken out against regulating commercial AP because I know that there are a lot of people like me who are diligently developing good quality commercial MR's and a lot of RC pilots where safety is at the very center of their business and we don't need people who, quite frankly, know very little about MR's burdening us with undue regulations. That will happen over time anyway, plus the overwhelming percentage of incidents reported are hobby grade Phantoms and DJI550's, not that they are bad MR's its just that their relatively inexpensive and can be purchased at the mall so commercial regulations would do little to change this.

    So I encourage everyone interested in commercial RCMA to go and buy a Phantom, you will be a great potential customer for me or someone like me in the near future.

    @Larrry, wow $1500 a year? I pay less than that for my airplane insurance. Hopefully as a result of more people entering this market the insurance prices will be more competitive.

  7. I have been using an MR sine last summer for Re work. Started with a DJI Phantom with H3-2D and Hero 3.. then once I wanted to start upgrading it I built up a DJI F450 Quad..then made it a DJI F550. Now since there is a lot of potential to make more money and I have many clients every week asking about get better quality you need a MR that can carry more weight, better flight times and a 3 axis gimbal for the smoothest video capabilities. I am building a Tarot T810 right now and prob before the end of the year moving on to something like a DJI s1000 or something like.
    I just hope my state doesn't try to ban them...

    I do have insurance for it and pay the $1500/yr.. It puts the clients to ease knowing the home is covered when flying over multi-million dollar homes!

    The technology of MR's are gaining speed VERY Quickly and with HD Downlinks coming out and hopefully prices coming down on them.. that will make flights safer also.

  8. @Jared, I like your website. Great video's and pictures.

    How much of a difference to your property video business does aerial make? How much demand have you experienced and is that growing especially considering the recent ruling? Would you mind sharing how much you charge for aerial? Not so much for competitive or pricing reasons but so that others who are just getting started can guesstimate some kind of ROI.

  9. Checking out the above mentioned insurance, it appears to be completely worthless. The policy requires that operators "agree to operate all UAV equipment within the guidelines of the RCAPA organization and the FAA."

    Note that it does not say "Regulations." Worse, RCAPA dictates that operators must avoid flying over persons or property.

    Even if you are not flying over property, your platform may go rogue. If it does, then it could be considered "Not airworthy." Since airworthiness is a requirement of coverage, it's a huge, vague hole in the policy.

    If $1500 out of pocket helps you win accounts, then I guess it's money well spent. If not, then consider putting that money into developing rigorous maintenance and safety procedures, and operate responsibly without ever deviating from your meticulously planned checklists.

    Having flown multi-rotors ranging from a 1" toy up through a beast of a Cinestar, I welcome the introduction of real insurance for commercial operators. I just don't see it yet.

  10. @Dan - Thanks for pointing out the problems with the aerialpak insurance... Great example that whatever insurance you're using you need to check it out in detail.

  11. agree with Chuck 100%

    Phantom is a fun toy but it isn't near the quality you need to shoot commercially.

    It isn't a bad platform to learn to fly before you buy a commercial grade copter though.

  12. @Jon Stewart
    I have to toss in a "Well, sometimes..."
    Know up front that I do most of my aerial work with a mix of 1.5 crop and full frame sensor gear out of an open R44. Until recently, I used couple of mirrorless bodies on a Cinestar/Radian platform.
    While I shoot luxury property almost exclusively, I have no problem employing a mix of tools for whatever job I have on hand. For smaller Web images, and short video clips, the Phantom/Zenmuse combo with the H3+ Black really does work.
    Would it be my first choice for a properly funded gig? Absolutely not. Does it work well enough for the vast majority of this site's readers? I'd bank on it.
    As MR platforms get safer and more sophisticated, the push for image quality is likely to ramp up. If you're already providing the stunning work that comes only from the bigger guns, you'll simply be ahead of everyone else.

  13. 1st - don't confuse phantom being hobby level with GoPro being hobby level.

    lets look at the phantom itself. The GPS is inside the plastic shell. The motors and sec's are not dependable for commercial use. You have to think about you are going to be putting this up in the air close to some housing unless you are planning on only shooting empty lots surrounded by empty lots. Google "DJI Phantom Flyaway" and then ask yourself if you would be willing to risk losing your business and maybe jail time over flying something for commercial use that wasn't designed or up to the task for that. It isn't a matter of if your copter will crash it is a matter of when. The transmitter that comes with the phantom is not nearly as good as Pro level transmitters. When you fly over houses on the same frequensy as cordless phones and alarm systems and etc etc and your using a garbage transmitter, you are going to lose control of your craft at some point.

    You can upgrade radio, motors and props to a level that is more professional and now your phantom is around $2500.

    You now need to get some sort of FVP system so that you can see what your camera sees and then mount those on to your phantom. This means soldering and other skillets that most photographers don't have. A bad solder joint means you are flying a time bomb.

    the phantom using a zenmuse gimbal to carry your go pro won't allow you to use your camera in the highest resolution because if you try and keep the horizons level, you are going to be photoshopping blades out of the picture because the gimbal doesn't get the camera far enough low or forward to get it out of view of the blades. this means you are having to crop the already not large sized photos down.

    if you get your gorpo lens upgraded to something more pro you are now spending another $4-500 on your go pro.

    now you are well over $3000 to get this toy ready to safely use. For that money you could have bought a commercial unit that is proessionaly built and made for what you want to use it for.

  14. @Jon Stewart
    All good points about the Phantom. I agree that a stock Phantom is all but useless for AP & video. A stock Phantom 2 is a more expensive and useless rig. The new power system would drive me nuts!

    For anyone with none of the basic components (especially the significant expense of a decent FPV system, transmitter, charging system, etc), the only two advantages of the Phantom are size and availability.
    I'd be willing to chalk up the flyaways to improper compass calibration, leaving the GoPro Wi-Fi on, or something similarly foolish. It would be interesting to see how many were actually related to the older F/W. I don't even want to know how many operators are skipping the basics like testing each battery and prop (or prop nut) pre-flight. Frightening, at best.
    While you know you're right, but most reading this have likely never thought of larger CF props, better motors, a more robust PDB, real telemetry (OSD) as options or requirements.

    For small jobs and short clips, I prefer the P1/Zenmuse combo for speed of deployment, availability of replacement parts, and the fact that even heavily modded, it looks unthreatening (like a toy). As capable as it was my Cinestar had a wonderful way of making people very skittish.

    I'd love to see another small quad purpose-built for very light, very mobile aerial work. (I mean that. No snark intended, as I really do think more competition in that end of the market would be a good thing). "Cheap" definitely isn't a requirement.

  15. @Chuck Spaulding Currently only using a Gopro which Quality is Ok for web use but not really print.. I am charging $200 just photos and $350 for video and images.. When shooting the video I am using those clips in my HD Video packages. So it's a $350 add-on to my $250 or $350 video tours.

    Since I started offering this and without marketing it directly I have prob made $3-4k doing this. 2k since Jan! Realtors in the area are hearing about my services and current clients are loving it! So I know this year I have potential to hit 10-15k in added revenue. So spending 5-8k on a setup with better quality will get me higher rates also. I plan on doing $300 photos and $500 photos+video. I also plan on offering an edited 45 sec video of just aerial video possibly in case they don't want a hd video tour also.

    I am dropping the insurance do the easy loop holes in the contract. Hill and Usher nailed me to it last fall when they renewed my current policy for my cameras and I asked about insuring the MR.. they said since it's under the same business/llc I have to have the uav insurance for them to insure my normal equipment! I was pissed since it didn't directly relate.

    I am in the process of creating a separate business for the MR and services. This way if anything happens I am covered and it keeps business separate. Also so I can market in different ways.. Like Commercial building, Developoments, Local businesses etc.

  16. @daniel, I will load up some pix and specs of my sky rover quad.

    It is all custom build carbon quad

    A2 control system
    iOSd mkii
    T motors
    graupner props
    sky rover landing gear and gimbal w/ sony nex7

    I have this setup to do solo flights

    my old DJI EVO and the new Cinestar I am building are 2 people to operate rigs

  17. @Jon "When you fly over houses on the same frequensy as cordless phones and alarm systems and etc etc and your using a garbage transmitter, you are going to lose control of your craft at some point."

    What system do you recommend? Futaba and Spectrums top of the line transmitters also use 2.4 ghz, like the garbage DJi transmitter and cordless phones. I'm sure there are hundreds of Phantoms being flown by hobbyist around the country, yet I have not heard of a rash of death and destruction. I think there is a difference between shooting a couple of stills from 100' using a Phantom and a high end video of a 50 acre property. It has it's place.

    Prior to quad copters, many were doing aerial work with glow powered RC helicopters. I have many hours flying Raptor 50's and 90's. Talk about something that can be dangerous, a Raptor 90 is like a flying lawn mower. And these are also flown with "garbage" transmitters. Not sure about R-44's but I do know that many, many have died in R-22's over the years. I'd feel much safer flying a Phantom, you won't get me in a Robinson.

    I guess I'll take my chances and try out a P2/GoPro combo.

  18. Larry you wrote.... When laws are created to regulate commercial RCMA (perhaps as long as 1 or 2 years) there may be a lot of hoops to jump through to become approved to fly commercial RCMA. Here in Aust we already have such regulations (not laws) and our FAA (CASA) have a vey complex, confusing and expensive system to become licensed to operate UAV or RCMA. It can cost you up to 10k just to get approved. Then you need to add cost of platform + spares, cameras, special aircraft insurance (your normal broker will not cover) as well as non standard public liability coverage and your cost are sky rocketing. This brings me to my point, unless the regulators advise the general public and agents that operators need to be licensed and regulatored like you tradesman like electrictian, plumbers and other licensed tradesman/professionals then the unlicensed cowboys will flood the market and drive down the prices to a point just like your $85 run and gun RE shooter..... Chuck you wrote that you think the FAA are more concerned with with 777s than UAVs and RE photography. I would think they are more concerned with UAVs and 777s in the same air space. I am not a pilot but it would concern me when I check in if the FAA (CASA) just did nothing to somehow control the use of drones commercial or otherwise.........

  19. Hi @Dave, I've said a lot about the FAA and their attempt to regular RCMA's, that's just the first that has been quoted. I have continually called into question the need for the FAA to regulate RCMA's, not because I don't think there needs to be any regulations but because of the unintended consequences, complexity and additional expense that will make the goal of being a legal AP operator unattainable.

    I am a pilot, here in the US, pilots are restricted from flying within 500ft of a man made object or person in unincorporated ares. In incorporated areas its 1500ft, so there are already regulations that separate RCMA's and general aviation in place today without the need for any additional regulations of the RCMA's.

    I agree with your point, I believe that if the FAA regulates RCMA's the only people who could afford to be in the AP business will be Amazon and the unlicensed "cowboys" who are willing to ignore the law. So the government is about to give us a choice, if you want to operate a small business doing something you really like doing then comply with "these" regulations, which most of us won't be able to do, or break the law.

    Of coarse non of us know what "these" regulations will be but its pretty obvious that if the people who want to own these small AP businesses don't have a voice in the regulatory process then the regulations will be onerous. Its also pretty clear to see that the FAA has no intention of letting us participate in this process, unless you consider threats to imprison, to levy fines, and cease and desist letters an invitation...

    Here's a simple example: One regulation might be that all RCMA's fly at or below 400ft. Simple enough. But how do you know that your at 400ft? So every RCMA needs at have an OSD that indicates your altitude. Well that should be easy. Not so fast. In order for the RCMA to comply with that regulation that OSD has to go through a time consuming and expensive certification process to prove its accuracy. So its reasonable to assume that the certified OSD will cost more than the OSD that currently costs $50. How much more? You might be surprised. I can purchase a non certified Garmin [aviation] GPS for my plane for about $200, it can't be mounted in the plane and its not certified for IFR flight. For a Garmin GPS that can be mounted and is certified for IFR flight they start at about $8,000. I'm guessing that certified OSD will be about $1500.

    You can decide for yourselves where you think the inflation is. As a developer and builder of MR's for AP I'm pretty confident that I will not be able to afford the certification process. Let me re-charcterize that, you won't want to pay the additional cost for my "certified" product.

  20. Unless the RCMAs are regulated or licensed somehow, which will have a cost that will restrict the numbers flying then they will be everywhere and in the hands of cowboys who longterm will only hurt the market and drive DOWN the price for this work.

  21. I want to echo what Bruce wrote above: " When I learnt to fly in the air force, my squadron leader flight instructor told us “there are those with fifty hours who think they know everything: there are those with five hundred hours who know they know everything: there are those with five thousand hours who know they’ll never know everything.!

    As an airline pilot (Captain) and Flight Instructor (CFII-MEI) myself with over 10,000+ hours I have determined I know I'll really never know everything. Thinking of purchasing a DJI Phantom (any model) and getting to fly it safe and get good photo/videos in a few hour is pure delusional. What's worse, is having dozens of new pilots flying these things around trying to get the 'shot' is going to cause some issues and crashed expensive quadcopters.

    If you're thinking of flying a DJI Phantom, be prepared to invest the time and get the skills necessary to fly it safely and also get the good shots. My guess that might be closer to 100 flights just to get the idea! Be safe everyone..for everyone sake.

  22. @Chet, I was a student pilot when I purchase my plane. Everyone told me to start out small, C172 and work my way up. I was going to buy a C210 but the insurance was ridiculously expensive, so I purchased an Arrow and finished my training in that. 2000+ hours later that Arrow is going strong. All of the CFI's I knew told me not to get a complex airplane and that O would regret it.

    Point is everyone has to start somewhere and as you point out the place to start is having the right expectations. It takes practice, how much will vary on how good you are but you can't practice too much.

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