Technology

Real estate drone tours: Pioneers are learning on the fly

#madREskillz: Agents getting firsthand experience of risks, benefits

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Rob Seaver could tell that the pilot was concerned. The clearance between the bridge and an overhanging tree branch was only about 5 feet, he said.

It would be a tough fit for the drone.

“The other guy from their team was standing on the bridge ready to grab it in case something happened,” Seaver said.

Thankfully, the airborne vehicle glided through the gap, securing flyover footage of a creek bed in Westmoreland Park in Bethesda, Md.

The close call in the park was just one of several difficulties that Seaver — marketing manager for the Bethesda-based Wydler Brothers, of the brokerage Long and Foster — encountered in helping to produce a neighborhood tour of Westmoreland Hills that featured footage captured by a drone.

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His experience illustrates the pitfalls of enlisting the services of an unmanned aircraft, even as it highlights the potential benefit of a marketing tool that’s literally turning heads — an issue that industry leaders will explore at Real Estate Connect NYC.

The Wydler Brothers first decided to use a drone after seeing a tour of a listing produced by a colleague that used drone-captured footage. But after creating a drone listing tour of their own, the team concluded that they wanted to produce a tour with drone video that would have a “longer shelf life.” That’s how they came up with the idea for a neighborhood drone tour, Seaver said.

Winner of the latest #madREskillz contest, the Wydler Brothers’ neighborhood tour, published in December, has racked up more than 800 views from neighbors and prospects alike.

“The neighborhood tour can be used as a tool to get more listings, but it also can attract buyers to the neighborhood to kind of solidify our agents’ position as neighborhood specialists in the neighborhood,” Seaver said.

For the tour, the Wydler Brothers selected the Westmoreland Hills neighborhood in affluent Bethesda, Md., and they hired the same team, “Heliskope,” that handled their first drone video.

The drone that Heliskope used represented a $20,000 investment, and was not “one of those $1,000 drones you can get off a website,” Seaver said.

“Seeing the thing in action for the first time was freaking awesome,” Seaver said. “It has eight propellers, is noisier than a lawn mower, and it is really like looking at something that’s meant for military use — and it’s just sitting there hovering right in front of you.”

drone

Photo of the drone Heliskope used to produce the Wydler Brothers’ neighborhood tour. Courtesy of Rob Seaver.

But while drones may be easy to look at, Seaver soon learned they’re not so easy to fly.

Seaver and the Wydler Brothers had originally envisioned piloting the drone straight down Cammack Drive, one of the town’s most scenic streets. They wanted to capture roof-level footage of the neighborhood. But when they showed up to execute the shot, they discovered that the street’s tree line posed a problem.

“There were just portions of the street that we were just simply unable to get those shots because branches would be in the way or you would have to suddenly fly up to avoid a tree or fly below it,” Seaver said.

Complicating matters were cars.

In order to maintain line of sight of the drone, the pilot often needed to stand in the middle of road to fly it. That, along with the fact that an unidentified flying object gliding 10 feet above the road might disorient some drivers, compelled Seaver and others to stop traffic during shooting, he said.

“He’s like in the middle of the road with theses goggles on,” Seaver said of the pilot. “So it’s kind of just a safety measure and letting people know not to freak out if they pull up and see this drone flying right above them.”

In between waving down cars and reckoning with frustrating tree branches, the team also had to deal with the stream of residents who trickled out of their homes during the shoot.  The resulting conversations may have generated some interest in the Wydler Brothers, but they also threw a wrench in the shoot.

“At some point you’ve got to let them know, ‘If you don’t mind we don’t necessarily want to have people in the shot,’ ” he said. “You try and kind of herd them back into their houses.”

The team ultimately decided to shoot the street and surrounding homes from a much higher altitude, about 2,000 feet. “When you’re up that high, line of sight isn’t really an issue,” he said.

That approach may have solved some logistical difficulties, but it wasn’t a cure-all. The team still had to deal with a handful of residents who were upset by the drone.

Seaver said he and the pilots were able to ease those residents’ concerns by revealing their affiliation with the Wydler Brothers, who Seaver said are well-known in the area.

“You can see it from so far away that when it’s really far away you won’t see the pilot or where it’s flying or why,” Seaver said. “I can see why it draws attention when it’s filming.”

Drones’ potential to rub some people the wrong way is likely one consideration that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is taking into account as it drafts a proposal for new rules that will regulate drones under 55 pounds. The agency is reportedly expected to propose the new rules in 2014.

For now, the FAA doesn’t sanction flying drones outdoors for commercial purposes, and may impose fines if drones are operated in a “careless or reckless” manner,” The New York Times recently reported in an in-depth article on real estate agents’ use of drones for listing videos.

Some real estate agents and drone pilots counter that they aren’t breaking any rules because they fly drones below 400 feet — the maximum height for model airplanes. But an FAA spokesman told The Times that model airplane guidelines don’t apply to commercial drones and that drone operators must obtain special approval from the agency, The Times reported.

So far, no real estate agency has been granted that permission, according to The Times.

The president of one drone service told The Times that he has not sought FAA approval because the agency does not have a system for managing commercial drones below 400 feet. The agency reportedly declined to comment on that statement.

 

When the Wydler Brothers hired Heliskope in August, they didn’t closely consider the legality of the project, Seaver said. “More than that, we were concerned for liability for damages in the neighborhood if the drone were to fly into somebody’s house,” he said.

But drones have become a hot topic since then. Possibly reflecting the increased scrutiny over their use, Seaver said that Heliskope recently made it clear to the Wydler Brothers that it charges only for photography and video editing, not drone footage.

Drone footage, should it appear in a video produced by Heliskope, is just the “icing on the cake,” according to Heliskope, Seaver said.

The Wydler Brothers say their cake, icing and all, has been a hit with locals and prospects.

In addition to aerial footage, the tour features photos of former Wydler Brothers’ listings and community fixtures including schools and shopping centers, along with narration from the Wydler Brothers’ Dutch office manager.

The video also includes compelling footage of Westmoreland Park, the fruit of the drone’s dicey flight through a gap between a bridge in the park and its canopy.

The drone footage has helped the Wydler Brothers secure two clients, Seaver said. Despite the legal uncertainty surrounding drones, they plan to produce several more neighborhood tours that use drone footage, Seaver said.

Unfortunately, the marketing strategy may not differentiate them for as long as they would like. Word is a property photography firm in the area has begun to shoot video with drones for its clients, Seaver said.

“We’re not necessarily thrilled about that because then we’ll be seeing a lot more of them, and it won’t be as unique to us,” Seaver said.