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Drones, and the ever-changing rules

Real Estate Drone Photography

The technology in the modern drone is amazing. They have become easy to fly, have amazing optics, and provide you with views that can easily accentuate your listing. A photograph or video from a drone can be used as a stand-alone element that makes your listing pop visually or integrated to enhance other videos. Aerial video is effective at showcasing an entire property, showing the property from a different angle, and even showing what is in the area around the drone. With all the great uses of drone photography and videography why would you not use it? I guess the better question should be about how I would use a drone safely. Although it might not seem like it, a drone is an aircraft. Yes, a toy you can buy at Wal-Mart is an aircraft and regulated by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration). Drones are regulated using the term sUAS, for small unmanned aircraft system, with registration and licensing requirements. Recently the FAA has adjusted its requirements for drones, and some of these could impact your decision on whether to own a drone or hire a drone service provider.

The basics of the FAA rules

The FAA has recently adjusted its regulations over drones that will be fully in effect within the next 2 years. Some of these changes have gone into effect already, with others requiring drone manufacturers to make changes to their systems. Let us look into the basics of drone regulations, with some notes about what is due to change in the near future.


All drones must be registered when used for any commercial purposes. You might have read that that only exists for drones that weigh over .55 pounds (250 grams), but that leaves out a key factor. All drones that are used for commercial purposes must be registered. You go up to get pictures of a property, it must be registered. You get video that you put on YouTube and that channel gets monetized, it must be registered. You take a picture and sell that picture online; it must be registered. Basically, if you could make money with your drone, register it. Registration is only $5 and lasts for 3 years. You must then put you registration number on the outside of your drone where it can be easily seen.

Part 107 Certification

According to the FAA all drone “pilots” flying for commercial purposes must be certified. OK I used pilots in quotes because regular aircraft pilots like to point out that drone operators just have a certification and don’t physically pilot the aircraft. That is just semantics, but to keep everyone calm we will just refer to it a certification and operation. The Part 107 certification is basically you proving to the FAA that you know the basics of aeronautical knowledge and legal requirements for operating a drone. This does NOT include the safe flying of a drone. This is a written test to make sure you know how to read weather reports, how weather impacts a drone, how to read aeronautical charts, the legal requirements for operating a drone, and how to recognize unsafe practices along with other items (one new item includes night operations). These items are updates as regulations and trends change which necessitates retesting every 2 years. The initial test will occur in a designated testing center, with recurrent test being done online. Hobbyist operators are now required to take an online test to prove knowledge of safe flying practices.

Rule changes

In the past year the FAA changed its rules governing drones and drone operation in US airspace. This was due to several factors some good and some bad. The largest factor being the advent of drone delivery, a service provided by larger companied using drones to deliver products within a designated area. Presently this is being tested in several areas, such a Blacksburg, Virginia. Other factors included public safety concerns due to irresponsible operations. Recently during protests in many cities drones were used, however not always by public safety officials. Some areas saw people use drones around the protests in violation of any rules such as night flying without certification, flying in restricted areas without permission, flying in a hazardous manner, flying over people. Until recently the only way of determining that a drone operator was flaunting the regulations was to know exactly where that operator was launching from. This basically meant you had to know where someone was located, and which drone was theirs before anything happened. New rules called Drone ID are due to go into effect next year. All drones manufactured next year must be able to transmit their location and a unique identifier that local officials can use if a drone is operating illegally. All drones made prior to that deadline must be modified with a device that the manufactures create. This change has been controversial, with many drone operators against it, however it does allow for enforcement of rules if people are flaunting them and it allows for drones to know where each other are in the airspace, especially if they are due to become more crowded with drone delivery on the horizon. Another rule that has been established it the hobbyist test, called TRUST, which helps establish a baseline of minimal knowledge. This is the FAA attempting to take away the “I didn’t know” defense.

Your safe operation versus flaunting the rules

Presently you can basically scale down the safe, responsible, operation of drone to a few items: registration, certification, insurance, and ability. These might not seem like much, but you happen to be a busy individual that just needs that one shot to really set off your listing. Why go through the steps when you can just quickly launch and get the photo you need? The issue is not what will happen, but what could happen. A responsible operator will know the limits of his aircraft and skill. What are the maximum wind gusts that the drone can withstand, and how does that affect the photo? A responsible operator will know if they are going to fly in a restricted area, and how to receive the proper permissions to fly in that area. While that quick shot might be essential to your listing, doing so safely should be at the forefront of your mind, especially with enforcement likely to increase with the advent of Remote ID. Since most fines are incurred by the operator, as the responsible party, it is good to know what some of the fines have been. In the past couple of years, a hobbyist was recently fined over $10,000 due to a drone that had a flyaway in Las Vegas, and the extreme case in November 2020. The FAA informed an unlicensed drone pilot that he broke FAA rules a total of 123 times, with each one worthy of a $1,500 fine. The total amount in civil penalties for the crime adds up to a whopping $182,004. The violations were related to drone videos he live-streamed on his YouTube channel from December 2019 through August 2020. The best ways are to avoid flaunting any rules by making sure you and your drone are complaint with all FAA and local regulations or hire a professional. When hiring a professional be sure to check their FAA certification, and don’t be afraid to ask if they are current. I would always follow that up with asking for proof of insurance, examples of work, and asking under what conditions you could not fly. Knowing what prohibits a flight for technical reasons is just as important as legal reasons. Each drone being unique and each operator’s skill level being different, only your operator could answer these questions.

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