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Realtors Have Liability for Hiring an Unlicensed Drone Operator

Published: 24/05/2017


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David Murdoch recently posted an important comment on last year's poll we did on the FAA's Part 107 certification. David said:

Just as an update, the FAA confirmed in writing this week of the fines that can be applied. For a pilot who is unlicensed, the fine is $1,100 per occurrence/flight where imagery is used commercially. More importantly perhaps, the fine for the the real estate agent who hires an unlicensed pilot is $11,000. Of course, if you’re an agent who bought a drone and took the photos or video yourself, you will be liable for both fines.

Click on the image above to see the text of the confirmation that David is referring to.

This was news to me and perhaps others may have missed it. I find the FAA regulations difficult to find and to interpret.

On an another drone matter, this past week the Federal Appeals Court found drone registration unlawful for model aircraft (non-commercial drones). The reason is, "The 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act provides that the FAA ‘may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft,’ yet the FAA’s 2015 Registration Rule is a ‘rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft,' " To me this is insane! Hobbyists are just as likely, perhaps more, to require oversite regulation as commercial drone operators. This is a failure of everyone involved to create rational regulations.

Larry Lohrman

20 comments on “Realtors Have Liability for Hiring an Unlicensed Drone Operator”

  1. I am under the impression that most realtors do not have any idea what their exposure is regarding this. Maybe this will get out and make a difference. As it is now, most agents (95%) from my point of view, opt out of my pricing, and go with some kid that has no business insurance, license and lives at home who can charge pennies. With a "wink, wink" who is gonna know.....

    Ironically, most of these kids blow away anything I have seen pros do.

  2. Thanks to David Murdoch for getting a confirmation on the fines. If the fines make agent's stop and think about whom they hire for aerial photos, it will make the investment worthwhile for those that get a license and insurance.

  3. The Realtors haven't a clue, but the major franchise' do. Beware of the contracts they want you to sign before providing drone images. For the most part they are straight forward and reasonable.

    Sign a waiver regarding liability
    provide a copy of your licence for their records
    add them as a named insured

    but then things get a little quirky
    maintain insurance for 2 years after the images where taken
    they retain all ownership of the material
    they require you to sign their contractor agreement (that gives them ownership over you)
    and some more very ugly stuff.

  4. The FAA can only pursue civil fines against certificated operators. Any criminal charges have to come from a U.S. attorney. The rule for hiring a non-commercial pilot for commercial operations has been on the FAA books for decades, but it has only been applied to operators (such as charter or aerial tour companies) who *knowingly* hire uncertificated or improperly certificated pilots. It would be highly unlikely for the FAA to issue a notice of violation to a realtor who, being uncertificated, have no reason to know the FAA rules.

    So, yes, the *letter* of the law could involve fines "up to" $10,000 (plus a ten-percent administrative fee) for someone who hires an uncertificated pilot, but I doubt rather seriously that it will ever happen with a realtor.

  5. Hello,

    Has anyone found the official document, law, rule, regulation etc.., for this statement, (other then the email screen shot)?

    "In this case, someone who causes the operation can be liable as well. "
    "Person who causes the operation could be liable for a fine of $11,000..."

    Additionally, why would the pilot "only face a fine of $1,100/violation, and person who causes the operation could be liable for a fine of $11,000."

    Why is it way more for the person causing the operation?

    Any official docs to back this up would be great!

    Thank you!

  6. @KLC - for more information on this contact the FAA email at the bottom of the statement (

  7. This regulation relates to knowingly hiring an unlicensed pilot to fly an aircraft. While it is technically illegal, I have never heard of anyone being prosecuted. Our local FSDO does however make phone calls and routinely warns operators that they are aware of their activity and to get an airman certificate or face further action. I was told that in all but a few cases this has worked. And they do call, when we first started we got the call. We were all legal and we appreciate having a good relationship with the FAA and have had help from our local FSDO office solving certificate issues.

    In my experience these kids tend to have little experience in photography post editing and provide below average deliverables overall. I have seen them do some crazy and cool videos, swooping super low, cutting close to trees or buildings, etc... They also crash drones all the time and do not understand the risks and costs involved in running a business that way. The good news is they usually disappear in less than a year. Flying the drone is actually the easiest part of the business, the hard part is all the other business and legal stuff any business owner must do.

    One other point is that they also do not realize they are doing themselves a disservice if they actually want to break into this business. By seeding the market with services too cheap to operate a profitable business, it lowers the whole market. They do not understand that ridiculous lower pricing will attract realtors who just want something cheap. You know the kind that take their own MLS photos with their iphone cheap. Trust me, you do not want such clients, the moment they see a cheaper price they will dump you.

    Expert Aerial Solutions, LLC

  8. So, what it comes down to: Licensed pilots are encouraged by the FAA to sort through real estate adds in their immediate area. When they see a drone pic they send it over to to their FSDO (Flight Standards District Office) UAS Officer. The UAS Officer sorts through his or her monthly submittals and selects, at random, an agent to investigate. Whether they can legally or not, fines are imposed on the unlucky real estate agent, who after investigation, used an Unlicensed Drone Pilot. That seems fair to me. Particularly if "Whistle Blower Awards" are handed out. After all, real estate agents would go nuts if unlicensed persons started selling properties. Avoid the court costs fighting the FAA...hire a licensed pilot.

  9. @Andy

    "By seeding the market with services too cheap to operate a profitable business, it lowers the whole market. They do not understand that ridiculous lower pricing will attract realtors who just want something cheap"

    The problem is that the teenagers that get a drone for Christmas and start offering their services for aerial photos are often just doing it for extra money after school or during the holidays. They don't have any real business expenses, aren't going to report the income for tax purposes if they can get away with it and will bang out a Facebook page instead of spending money on a real web site so if they spend anything, they will have Vista Print make them a 1,000 cheap business cards to hand out. Since they are still living at home, they don't have to earn a living wage so an extra $40-$50 is another hour at the tattoo parlor. They give it up when the novelty fades and a very few might start having to up their prices when it turns out that they those 1099's mean that 1/3 of what they brought in is being claimed by the tax man and they don't have it.

    There are many markets where new people come in with unsustainable low prices and no business experience only to go out of business within 6 months. If you can earn twice the money stocking shelves at the supermarket, it crazy to work for yourself. Cheap agents will always use cheap people or will buy their own gear and waste their time trying to do everything themselves. The smart ones will want to establish long term relationships with people they can count on. Since those are the clients I want, I don't discount my prices unless it benefits me and I don't worry about photographers offering lower prices.

  10. I'm curious, I live in a small town and have friends who are Realtors in town and have been asked to do an occasional drone video and as a favor I have complied. I never charge them and advise I am not licensed. Is this a violation???

  11. Roger Graves Sr. -

    Yes it is a violation. Since the photos and videos are being used for a commercial purpose (real estate) a commercial certification is required, regardless of compensation. This is part of federal CFR Regulation 14 part 107.

  12. @Roger Graves, the fine listed for hiring an unlicensed operator is $11,000 while the fine to the operator is only $1,100. In all likelihood, you can get away with it without any issues. The problem arrises when there is a problem such as a neighbor calling the police or your UAV gets hung up in power lines. It's the primary use of the images that defines whether the flight is commercial, not the compensation.

    Getting licensed isn't a big problem. There are tons of resources online now. The cost to sit for the test is $150 and if you pass, the certification is good for two years. You will also need to register your UAV as commercial. Get your friends to pay you to get licensed and everything is above board. If you don't want to pay for insurance, have the agents sign a waiver that makes them liable if anything happens with the flight. If they don't go for that, start charging.

  13. As I'm reading all of these comments, I'm a little confused on where the difference is in being a certified drone operator or a licensed one. Isn't it enough for the drone photographers that do get certified & licensed & registered with the FAA to be able to continue to photograph listings for Realtors without anyone getting fined? I personally feel that if a drone photographer (and not me by the way - no seriously, not me), has gone through the certification & registration process that they should be legally ok & no one getting fined a ridiculous amount of money for what? Pictures of houses or properties? Unless you're a peeping tom taking pictures of people or stalking someone, I think these fines are ludicrous.

    If they are certified, registered & insured, that should be more than enough. Just my thoughts.

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