What’s That Flying Over Your Listing?

Can drones be used as a way to survey property and shoot aerial videos to help market and sell of listings? Legally, no — at least for now.

February 25, 2013

When you hear “drones,” you probably think of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan or elsewhere, but a small number of real estate practitioners have been exploring whether drones might be used as a way to survey property and shoot aerial videos to help market and sell listings.

Up to now, using these tiny aircraft for business has been a risky legal proposition; under federal law, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles has been prohibited for commercial purposes. But change is on the horizon.

Current federal law prohibits the use of drones except for recreational use by hobbyists; limited waivers have also been granted to police and first responders. And on a limited basis, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued certificates for private commercial operators to operate drones for flight tests, demonstrations, and training. Currently, there’s no other method for obtaining FAA approval to fly drones for commercial purposes.

In February 2013, however, President Obama signed into law the Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act (Act), which compels the FAA to allow drones to be used for commercial purposes, including by real estate professionals. Specifically, the law requires that within 90 days of its passage, the FAA allow police and first responders to use drones and that by Sept. 30, 2015, the FAA allow for the safe integration of drone use for a variety of commercial purposes. NAR, on behalf of its members, will ensure that the concerns of REALTORS® are considered during the rulemaking process.

To date, the FAA has never imposed any penalties in connection with the use of drones, but the agency has issued warnings. State and local officials have begun cracking down on the practice, which presents a host of legal issues, including safety and privacy concerns.

With passage of the new Act, it appears that the use of drones for commercial purposes, such as taking aerial images of real estate, may become a permissible practice in the not-so-distant future. In the meantime, in order to avoid liability or face potential penalties, real estate professionals should not use drones until the FAA has made clear the allowable uses and has safely integrated these machines into the national airspace.