All drone pilots using small to medium-size drones — including real estate agents who might use drones to capture photos or video of properties with or without the Federal Aviation Administration’s authorization — are now required to register their drones with the FAA.

  • Real estate agents who use drones for property marketing must now register their drones with the FAA, in addition to obtaining special certification from the agency.
  • A new rule announced by the FAA requires hobbyist drone operators to register drones they've already been piloting no later than February 21, 2016. Pilots can register online.
  • Many real estate professionals may be operating drones illegally.

All drone pilots using small to medium-size drones — including real estate agents who might use drones to capture photos or video of properties with or without the Federal Aviation Administration’s authorization — are now required to register their drones with the FAA.

The agency has introduced a rule requiring owners of drones weighing more than 0.55 pounds and less than 55 pounds including payloads such as on-board cameras to register the unmanned aircraft online or through mail.

“Make no mistake: unmanned aircraft enthusiast are aviators, and with that title comes a great deal of responsibility,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in a statement.

“Registration gives us an opportunity to work with these users to operate their unmanned aircraft safely. I’m excited to welcome these new aviators into the culture of safety and responsibility that defines American innovation.”

Registration due dates

Any owner of a drone who has previously operated the aircraft exclusively as a model aircraft before December 21, 2015, must register it no later than February 19, 2016. Drone operators that purchase drones for use as model aircraft after December 21, 2015 must register before their first flight outdoors.

The rule wouldn’t impose any additional requirements on agents who use drones for property marketing if they’re already in compliance with existing regulations. Those pilots, who probably number well under 1,000, have been required to obtain certification from the FAA all along, a process that has included registering their aircraft.

The rule would place an additional regulatory burden on agents who haven’t received that certification, and either only use their drones recreationally, which doesn’t require certification from the FAA, or use their drones for property marketing without the FAA’s approval.

By registering their aircraft, agents who use drones for property marketing would still be in violation of the FAA’s certification requirement, but they’d at least be complying with a new FAA rule.

Commercial vs. recreational

The FAA has long maintained that real estate agents who fly drones to take pictures or videos of properties that they are trying to sell are using the aircraft for commercial purposes, not recreational purposes. That’s meant that those agents are required to obtain special certification from the FAA.

The requirements and approval process for that certification isn’t a cakewalk, and the number of real estate professionals who have secured it may lag well below the number of those who actually use drones in their businesses. A search of “real estate” on the FAA’s search tool for commercial drone authorizations turns up 560 results.

“Real estate agents who want to use an unmanned aircraft as part of their business need to get a Section 333 authorization AND register their aircraft,” said FAA spokesman Les Dorr in an email, referring to the type of certification that commercial drone operators must obtain from the FAA. “All commercially operated unmanned aircraft must be registered.”

The relatively small number of real estate professionals and businesses licensed to operate drones for commercial purposes offers bragging rights to those who belong to or have access to that pool of pilots.

“We take care of the federal compliance details and insurance requirements so our clients can market properties with drone photography without losing sleep at night,” said Jeff Corn, CEO of real estate photography firm Virtuance, which announced today that it’s providing FAA-compliant drone photography in Phoenix, San Diego, Austin, Texas and throughout Colorado.

What’s involved in registration

Pilots who operate drones for recreational purposes will need to register their name, home address and email address on the FAA’s online registration page. They will then receive a “Certificate of Aircraft Registration/Proof of Ownership” that will include a unique identification number for the UAS owner. Pilots must add the identification number to their aircraft.

Drone operators who receive certification to operate drones for commercial purposes have always been required to register their aircraft, and can only do so through mail, Dorr said. But the FAA is working on adding the ability for drone operators who use the aircraft for commercial purposes to register online by the spring of 2016.

Owners using their aircraft for hobby or recreation will only have to register once and can use the same identification number for all of their “model UAS [unmanned aircraft systems].” Registration for hobbyist drone operators is valid for three years.

Pilots certified to use drones for commercial purposes, on the other hand, continue to be required to get a unique identification number for each of their drones, according to Dorr.

Email Teke Wiggin.

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