The FAA continues to issue exemptions for real estate-related commercial drone flights, but there’s a catch — the permits all require that operators have a private pilot’s license.

The four real estate-related commercial drone approvals granted to date — including the exemption issued on Jan. 6 to Tucson, Arizona-based Realtor Douglas Trudeau — stipulate that those who intend to fly their small, unmanned remote-controlled aircraft commercially go through the expensive and time-consuming process of becoming licensed to fly an actual airplane.

Austin real estate broker Alston Boyd tells KXAN how he intends to use his commercial drone permit.

Since Trudeau became the first Realtor to get the nod from the FAA, three more real-estate related operators have been approved:

  • On Feb. 13, the FAA issued an exemption to Austin, Texas-based broker Alston Boyd’s company, Capital Aerial Video LLC.
  • On March 3, Michael Singer of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, obtained an FAA exemption for his company, Singer’s Creations, “to conduct aerial photography and videography for homeowners, Realtors, homebuilders, home contractors, and/or home inspectors for real estate marketing and inspections of home exteriors.”
  • On March 6, Diana Cook’s El Cajon, California-based FalconSkyCam got the green light to use a DJI Phantom 2 to capture aerial photography for “real estate, surveying, marine photo and video, agriculture and special events.”

Some would-be commercial drone operators have pooh-poohed the FAA’s safety concerns, saying that when operated under rules that govern hobbyists, their small aircraft pose little risk to bystanders on the ground.

But in issuing exemptions for real estate-related commercial drone flights, regulators suggested another reason for requiring private pilot’s licenses — the fear that drones might make an attractive weapon to terrorists.

Pilots holding a private or commercial pilot’s license “are subject to … security screening by the Department of Homeland Security,” the FAA noted in denying Singer’s request to be relieved of that requirement.

The good news is that last month the FAA issued proposed rules that would govern the commercial use of drones weighing less than 55 pounds that, if adopted, will have less stringent operator requirements and put an end to the need to apply for exemptions on a case-by-case basis.

The FAA proposes that commercial operators of lightweight drones be at least 17 years old, pass an aeronautical knowledge test and obtain an FAA operator certificate for unmanned aircraft systems. To maintain certification, the operator would have to pass FAA knowledge tests every two years.

Email Matt Carter.

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