March 22, 2014 Meissner

Drones Taking Off Everywhere

The use of camera-equipped drones sounds like something out of a spy novel.  While it’s true that the military uses drones for generating intelligence and engaging in spycraft,  drones are increasingly being used for commercial purposes.  Will there be drones hovering over commercial properties everywhere in the near future?

In recent years, real estate “drone tours” have become popular marketing tools for some high-end residential property listings.  Instead of a simple photo gallery and video tour of a home, drones enable a bird’s eye view that tells a story from a different perspective.

The commercial use of drones has also been popular with real estate developers, where a property’s relation to its topography, local roads, and neighboring properties can best be mapped out from an aerial perspective.

Besides real estate, drones–more formally known as “unmanned aerial vehicles” (UAVs)–are being used for other commercial purposes.  Companies have realized that drones can be valuable delivery mechanisms as well as marketing tools.  In December, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos made headlines when he announced that his company would start offering 30-minute deliveries via drone-like “octocopters.”

And speaking of 30-minute deliveries, Domino’s recently posted video of the “DomiCopter” delivering two pizzas in the United Kingdom.  Last year, the “Burrito Bomber,” the outcome from a couple of hungry engineers from Yelp, showed off its ability to deliver tasty burritos to the consumer’s doorstep.

But while the technology exists to deliver burritos and DVDs by air, the regulatory side is still playing catch-up.  The Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) has banned the use of small drones for commercial purposes at levels below 400 feet. Last year it brought a case against the only person it has attempted to fine so far, for “operating a drone recklessly” while filming a commercial for the University of Virginia’s medical school.  Earlier this month, a ruling by a federal judge dismissed the case and ruled that the FAA’s policy notices issued as a basis for the ban weren’t enforceable because they were not produced through a formal rule-making process.

When looking at legal issues, a UAV pilot must consider not just FAA policies but also state and local laws. The FAA has been primarily focused on safety, while state and local governments have been focused primarily on privacy issues. For instance, it is illegal to fly any remote-controlled aircraft in the city of Santa Monica, CA.

The judge’s ruling opens up a broad discussion about how, if, and when the commercial real estate world will embrace the use of drones. Or will they pass over the opportunity because of persistent fears about the risk, the legalities, or the concerns about the cost?

A few large real estate agencies, such as Neoscape, have already built drones as part hobby, part R&D. Traditionally firms have had to rent helicopters or climb cranes to finish building renderings or take photos for marketing purposes. A camera-equipped drone will likely grab these images or video more conveniently, not to mention more cheaply.

“Every decade or every year or every day, there’s something new that people want to look at, that everyone wants to do,” says Carlos Cristerna, an associate principal and the director of visualization at Neoscape. “It seems like these days, drones are the thing.”

However, only companies willing to jump into a relatively unknown venture are making any moves in the directions of drones use. Before seeing drones flying overhead becomes commonplace, there are many regulatory hurdles to jump.

Realtor Magazine recently summarized the safety and legal issues: “Drones present very real and very difficult issues, including safety and privacy. The safety issues are clear: People operating drones have to be trained, and systems have to be in place to help protect people nearby should something go wrong. On privacy, a regulatory system has to be in place to help reduce the chances of drones being used to take unauthorized photos and video.”

The FAA is behind schedule in defining regulations for the use of UAVs.  But the reality is that using drones for beneficial civic or commercial purposes, instead of military actions, is a growing trend.

“Medical supplies, wildlife monitoring, cargo, firefighting — it’s a pretty long list of things that drones can do,” according to drone expert Misty Cummings, an associate professor at MIT and one of the Navy’s first fighter pilots. “It’s reinvigorating a dying aerospace industry.”

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