The Coming of the Drones
By Dees Stribling
The Weekly World News is not a source for breaking real estate stories very often, but early in 2012 the Web site (formerly a tabloid) reported that a number of real estate brokerage firms in greater Los Angeles were “at war,” using a new technology. “Real estate agents began using armed predator drones to knock the competition’s drones out of the sky,” the WWN reported, adding the following touch: “Then THAT escalated, and now real estate drones have been attacking the buildings of competitors …”
The WWN is the same publication predicting the arrival of space aliens later this year, unless of course the world ends first, so reports of real estate agents attacking each other by remote-control aircraft need to be taken with several pounds of salt. But the story has a kernel of fact. Unmanned aircraft, or drones, do have a future in real estate, both residential and commercial, and in some cases have already been used by the industry, mainly to take dramatic photographs of multimillion-dollar properties that are hard to access any other way.
A somewhat more reliable media source, the Los Angeles Times, reported earlier this year that the LAPD’s Air Division warned Los Angeles-area real estate agents not to hire operators of unmanned aircraft, since current federal regulations do not, generally speaking, permit use of the vehicles for commercial purposes, real estate or otherwise. The ban is fairly broad, prohibiting their operation in U.S airspace without specific permission, though hobbyists can fly model planes.
The rationale for the ban is fairly straightforward: The government does not want airspace cluttered willy-nilly with drones, which might pose a safety hazard for aircraft carrying people. Though it is a little odd that the LAPD would concern itself with enforcing federal regulations, the department essentially said to real estate companies that taking dramatic video footage of Brad Pitt’s Malibu home (which happens to be for sale) is going to have to wait.
But the real estate industry is not going to have to wait that long to use drones. In February, President Obama signed a law—the FAA Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act, which had an unusual amount of bipartisan support in an otherwise divided Congress—that, among other things, will overhaul the regulations regarding the commercial use of unmanned aircraft. According to the law, the FAA must first allow police and other first-responder agencies to fly drones under two kilograms in weight (4.4 pounds), provided they fly them under 400 feet in altitude, and follow various other requirements.
Law enforcement has given every indication that it wants to use drones. The FAA has already approved their use in some law-enforcement cases, such as for the Mesa County (Colo.) Sheriff’s Office, which is testing them for various police purposes, especially search-and-rescue operations. In March, the sheriff’s office became the first U.S. public safety agency to receive an FAA Certificate of Authorization to operate drones countywide, a 3,300-square-mile area.
Under the new law, the FAA must draft new, less restrictive regulations for commercial drone use by mid-2015. No doubt as soon as the new regulations are in force, California real estate agents will want to photograph Hollywood stars’ homes for sale, but the potential for unmanned aircraft is considerably wider than that. Capable of carrying still as well as video cameras, they could do the same kinds of jobs that aerial photographers do now, except that they would probably be cheaper to use, especially for companies that wanted to use them continuously. Also, they would be able to do things standard aerial photographers cannot do, such as fly rings around a property, taking a video.
“You can produce dramatic shots you couldn’t get otherwise,” said Scott Choppin, founder & CEO of the Urban Pacific Group of Cos., which specializes in developing affordable housing, as well as mixed-use and urban-infill properties. “It’s already been demonstrated that these kinds of pictures can be useful in marketing homes, especially high-end ones, but the potential goes well beyond that.”
When you are out raising capital, Choppin said, the capabilities of drone photography as a less expensive and more flexible alternative to manned helicopter photography are fairly clear. “Part of what you need is some sizzle to first persuade investors, and later tenants, to take a second look at your project,” he said. “With drones, you can essentially make a little movie about the property, flying around it and its surrounds, thus presenting your project in a more memorable way. Alongside hard data, the images would help bring the property to life in the minds of potential investors and tenants—for instance, by scanning a 360-degree view from the future top floors of a multi-family or office project.
Marketing other kinds of commercial properties might not need quite the same kind of aerial-video sizzle, but Choppin said there might still be applications, especially as drone technology becomes more common and less expensive. “In selling a warehouse or a large distribution space, you might want to give potential buyers a dynamic sense of how close the freeways or the rail lines or the intermodal facility really is to the property.”
Construction companies might also want to put drones to use. Contractors could use the aircraft to do site evaluations before they start, for instance, or find property boundaries for a single lot or for an entire subdivision. They could also record phases of development for developer or financial support reports, or use aerial photographs and video for strategic planning of material and equipment delivery and placement.
The Nature of Drones
The public is used to hearing about military drones, but a commercial-use drone is another matter altogether. One major manufacturer of commercial drones is Saskatoon, Saskatchewan-based Draganfly Innovations Inc.—the Canadians being ahead of the United States in terms of allowing their commercial use. The company makes a large variety of models, mostly as platforms for photography and videography.
Its latest unmanned aircraft, the Draganflyer X4-P, is a good example of the type of vehicles that might be taking to U.S. airspace after the FAA’s new regulations come into force. The aircraft is flown using a handheld controller that incorporates a 2.8-inch OLED touch screen. The screen displays all telemetry and flight data, including altitude, heading, bearing, helicopter battery voltage and GPS position. The controller also features an integrated dual-diversity video receiver that takes the continuous stream of video transmitted from the helicopter and displays it on a pair of video glasses. These glasses allow the operator to see in real time what the camera is seeing.
The purpose of such an aircraft, naturally, is to carry a camera or cameras, and the X4-P’s mounting system offers a camera mount that keeps the equipment isolated from the helicopter. Along with an active tilt feature to maintain the camera level in forward and backward flight, this combination creates vibration-free pictures and video, according to Draganfly. The aircraft’s on-board flight computer incorporates software that processes input from 11 individual sensors—including a barometric pressure sensor, three accelerometers, three gyroscopes, three magnetometers and a GPS receiver—to compute hundreds of calculations per second, promoting flight stability and helping to keep the aircraft under control from the ground.
The X4-P also features flight batteries with integrated protection circuits that oversee the battery condition and status, along with a battery life indicator, an “auto-landing” feature in case the radio link to the helicopter is lost and an onboard flight-data recorder that captures all flight information on a removable memory card (a wee black box, as it were). The aircraft comes in a folding carbon-fiber airframe to fit inside a case no larger than a suitcase, so it can be stored in the trunk or back seat of a car when not in use.
It is easy to imagine the day, say in 2020, when a commercial real estate executive and their drone expert spend a few hours taking images of their latest development. After suitable editing and enhancement, the footage becomes an integral part of the property’s strategy to win funding or find tenants.
“As the technology gets more sophisticated, more companies will use it,” Choppin predicted. “The marketing packages we use now might look primitive by comparison.”