I ranked “drones” No. 4 in my top 10 real estate tech trends to watch for in 2014. Drones and UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) have the potential to have a significant impact not only on real estate but many other verticals as well.

However, drones are a polarizing topic, and there is a tremendous amount of inaccurate information and confusion regarding their usage.

I caught up with Matt Murphy, owner of Boston Virtual Imaging, to shed some light on the topic. Matt’s company specializes in a variety of media such as video, photography and property tours. Murphy will demo drones and share the latest news about their use in real estate Jan. 15 at Real Estate Connect New York City.

Tom Flanagan: Drones are a polarizing topic. What positive affects might they have on the real estate industry?

Matt Murphy: The public perception of drones has been influenced by media reports about this technology being used in Afghanistan and Iraq. The term “drone” tends to conjure up thoughts of these machines being used for military purposes. The truth is that communities of hobbyists with good intentions have used model aircraft and remote-controlled aircraft for decades in this country.

I’ve been impressed by the communities that have formed to support the education and use of these remote-controlled aircraft over several decades. The UAV hobbyist tends to be a curious learner who is willing to share their knowledge with others. I see UAVs as a great way to get young people involved and interested in aeronautics, electronics, telecommunications, software, math and science.

Flanagan: How are drones currently being used in real estate today?

Murphy: The most immediate positive result for the real estate industry is that camera-equipped UAVs now allow people to tell stories about listings in ways that they could not previously do. We all have access to Google Earth for aerial imagery. Very high-end listings use full-size helicopters to capture aerial photography and video. However, much of the media captured from helicopters or Google Earth is shot from too high of an altitude to tell the story you want to tell about a listing. That is where UAVs come in.

UAVs allow you to capture very low-altitude aerial footage, which often does a better job at telling a home’s story, compared to higher altitude footage. I like to say that UAVs can tell the story from 8 to 80 feet in ways that few other capture methods can. The technology is exciting, but it is just a tool. Telling a home’s unique story is the most important goal.

Flanagan: What’s happening with drone/UAV technology?

Murphy: The advances in electronics are probably the most surprising to people not involved in the field. It is now possible to use off-the-shelf components to build a UAV that can take off, fly to a specific location and land completely autonomously without any pilot input during the flight. UAVs can record highly stabilized HD video and sound, and transmit that video and audio down to a receiver on the ground. If a pilot loses contact with their UAV while in the air, many have a “go home” feature that will automatically fly the UAV back to the takeoff location to safely land by itself.

Flanagan: There is a lot of gray area and misinformation surrounding the legal use of drones. Can you shed some light on the regulations and FAA policy?

Murphy: When looking at legal issues, a UAV pilot must consider not just the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) policies but also state and local laws. The FAA has been primarily focused on safety, while state and local governments have been focused primarily on privacy issues. For instance, it is illegal to fly any remote-controlled aircraft in the city of Santa Monica, Calif.

The current FAA policy is very interesting. In 2007, the FAA issued a policy statement prohibiting the use of UAVs for commercial purposes. This policy did not restrict the use of UAVs by noncommercial hobbyists. In the six years since issuing the policy statement, many UAVs have been used for commercial purposes. Some commercial UAV operators have been issued cease-and-desist letters. However, only one person has been fined by the FAA for the commercial use of a UAV. That person is Raphael Pirker.

Pirker is a Swiss UAV pilot who is widely known and respected in the high-performance UAV community. He was fined $10,000 for recklessly flying his UAV at the University of Virginia. He is aggressively disputing the fine. The outcome of his case will likely have a big impact on the legality of UAV use for the near future. Pirker’s lawyer is arguing that because the FAA’s 2007 policy never underwent the requisite administrative rule-making process, there are no enforceable federal regulations restricting the use of UAVs. The FAA has responded that even if the 2007 policy is not enforceable, they believe that Pirker’s reckless flying is still within the FAA’s regulatory control. This would be the first time that a pilot of an unmanned aircraft would be subjected to the same recklessness standards as a pilot of a “manned” aircraft.

This is a fascinating case with far-reaching implications not only for UAVs but also property rights and tort laws. For now, the FAA’s policy states that all commercial UAV operations are prohibited. Some commercial UAV operators fly “under the radar” literally and figuratively. Some commercial operators do business out in the open.

Flanagan: Are FAA regulations going to be modified and will the use of drones become more flexible in the near future?

Murphy: The FAA is behind schedule in defining regulations for the use of UAVs. Congress has issued a deadline to the FAA requiring that the agency issue regulations and guidelines by 2015 to allow for integration of commercial UAVs into the national airspace system. This is a massively complex task and goes way beyond what is required to integrate the small, lightweight UAVs currently being used for real estate. The FAA must create regulations to integrate much larger, more complex aircraft into the entire airspace system. From a technical standpoint, there is no reason that large commercial aircraft could not be piloted remotely. The FAA needs to consider all of the complexities associated with that reality.

It is difficult to predict if the use of UAVs will be more flexible after FAA regulations are put in place. Most people assume that the noncommercial use of small lightweight UAVs under 50 pounds will become more flexible, but I am guessing that the commercial use of these UAVs will require some form of licensing and regulatory structure, which could make commercial operations more complex.

Tom Flanagan is the director of information technology at Residential Properties Ltd. in Providence, R.I. You can contact him at tflanagan@residentialproperties.com or @tflan on Twitter.

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