Put down that drone! FAA cracks down on realtors using aerial drone photos

You probably know by now that the Federal Aviation Administration hates the use of drones in aerial photography – at least until it can come up with regulations to enforce it. But now, according to Forbes, one group has gotten some heat from the FAA, and it’s not one that first comes to mind: real estate agents.

Forbes’ Gregory McNeal reports that NRT, the largest residential real estate brokerage firm in the U.S., is telling its agents not to use aerial drones to photograph houses for sale, thanks to intimidation by the FAA. NRT, which owns and operates familiar brands such as Coldwell Banker, ERA, and Sotheby’s International Realty, said that until the FAA comes up with clear guidelines, agents “will not be procuring drone photography from any vendor, nor will we process and distribute any drone photography provided to the company by an affiliated sales associate.” That means a video like the one below, created by a Coldwell Banker realtor, are no longer allowed.

When it comes to drone photography as a hobby, the FAA doesn’t have any jurisdiction over that (although you could still get in trouble with local authorities, depending on where and how you’re flying a drone). But in the case of NRT, using aerial drones for real estate purposes is considered a commercial activity – and because of that, the FAA has a say (it prohibits it).

The thing is, as Forbes points out, the FAA prohibits only the use of drones, but not the use of images or video taken from a drone. But it’s somewhat of a confusing chicken-or-the-egg dilemma: While realtors could use aerial drone footage, it can’t create them or hire anybody to it, as the FAA has the power to sanction any drone operator in a commercial situation.

As a way around it, homeowners could photograph their property under the guise of a hobby, and pass along the footage to their agents. But rather than trying to tiptoe around the situation, the NRT has ordered all of its members to avoid using drone photography, in any manner, whether it’s having homeowners do it or hiring drone videographers who specialize in such work. According to a letter written by Bob McCauley and Mark Daaleman, attorneys for NRT’s Coldwell Banker Preferred division, “the FAA has indicated that it is actively investigating suspected violations, a position that appears to be verified by media reports of the recent subpoena of drone-related records from a New York area real estate company and its photography vendor.” Despite the lawyers recognizing the difference between using images from a drone versus operating a drone to shoot photos, the FAA’s “aggressive stance regarding the use of drones specifically for real estate marketing purposes” is forcing NRT to ban drone photography.

McNeal, who is also a law and public policy professor at Pepperdine University, points out that NRT’s “sweeping decision” and the FAA’s intimidation are setbacks for the benefits of drone photography, as the agency goes about in hammering out regulations. Some real estate agents have started using aerial photography drones – using a DJI Phantom quadcopter and a GoPro cam, for exampole – as a way to add stunning shots that highlight a property they’re trying to sell. NRT’s “decision to prohibit the use of drone footage will have a chilling impact on thousands of realtors, and may set back efforts to convince the FAA to allow the safe use of drones for commercial filming,” McNeal writes. “If people can’t see the value the technology provides, it will be much easier for the FAA to prohibit the use of drones in commercial settings.”

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