The Federal Aviation Administration is proposing new rules that would allow drones to be flown at night and over people without waivers.

Drone-enabled real estate photography has ballooned in recent years and new federal rules may make it easier to get that perfect shot — especially at that magic “twilight” hour or in cities.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is proposing new rules that would allow drones to be flown at night and over people without waivers, as long as certain conditions are met. U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced the proposed rules on Jan. 14.

The new drone rules “will help communities reap the considerable economic benefits of this growing industry, and help our country remain a global technology leader,” Chao said in prepared remarks.

As of Dec. 14, 2018, there were nearly 1.3 million registered drones and more than 116,000 registered drone operators in the U.S., many of them hobbyists, first responders, and infrastructure inspectors, according to Chao.

Some are also enterprising real estate agents and photographers, keen on using innovative technology to offer their clients a new way to market for-sale home listings. Experts say the new proposed rules will offer real estate pros even more opportunities to impress, though they see a potential for abuse.

The FAA’s proposal would allow drones to fly at night without a waiver if the operator has received appropriate training, completed approved testing, and if the drone is equipped with anti-collision lighting designed to be visible from a distance of at least 3 miles.

The proposed rule would also allow drones to make routine flights over people without a waiver under certain conditions. Any drone weighing less than 0.55 pounds — including any cargo — could be flown over people.

Those weighing more than that could not cause injury that is the same or greater than “11 foot-pounds of kinetic energy upon impact from a rigid object” if they were to hit somebody and could not have exposed rotating parts that would lacerate human skin in the event of a collision. Drones could also not have an FAA-identified safety defect such as sharp edges or exposed wires.

If the drone would pack more of a punch than 11-foot pounds but less than 25 foot-pounds, it could still fly over people without a waiver but the people it flies over would have to be told and the drone would be prohibited from hovering over people or flying over open-air assemblies without a waiver.

Chao also announced two other related initiatives. One would ask for recommendations to reduce the risks of major drone safety and security issues that may pose a threat to other aircraft, to people on the ground or to national security.

The other designated contracts for entities to develop technology to manage the airspace for drone pilot projects announced in 2018 to test the safe operation of drones in a variety of conditions currently prohibited by law, according to Chao.

New regs ‘make sense’ for real estate

Brian Balduf, CEO and co-founder of real estate photography firm VHT Studios praised the FAA proposal and said the new, refined regulations “just make sense.”

“The timing is truly excellent for the real estate industry, as recently twilight and nighttime photography has dramatically increased in popularity on the ground,” he said.

“It makes sense that the opportunity to mirror that from the sky becomes more accessible. In 2018, VHT Studios shot more ‘twilight’ and ‘dusk’ exteriors than we did in the previous four years combined.

“Due to the time constraints of these sessions having to be timed to that perfect hour, they tend to be highly sought after by real estate professionals. As the sun goes down, landscaping and urban design features have an opportunity to truly ‘pop,’ and for the right listing, and this can be a huge draw for buyers!”

Anton Yakubenko, co-founder and CEO of home tour company GeoCV, told Inman via email the FAA proposal is a “great step towards faster adoption of an amazing technology that could benefit many industries while protecting public safety.”

“The proposed regulations would allow real estate professionals to acquire drone footage where it was previously hard or impossible, such as in some city areas. Subsequently it would allow better visual marketing that differentiates agents and brokers and presents a more complete image of the property and its surroundings,” he said.

Drone-enabled photos, videos and virtual tours “have proven to make listings stand out, increase engagement with home buyers, help agents build their brand, and finally result in faster transactions at over ask price. With the new regulations such a great marketing opportunity would become available for more properties,” he added.

Is this about Amazon?

Renee Stoll of content marketing firm Big Red Media and an expert on drone photography told Inman the FAA has been flooded with waiver requests for drones to fly at night and over crowds.

“I know I’ve personally submitted a waiver and it took more than six months for an answer, passing my scheduled fly date,” she said.

Reached by Inman, an FAA spokesperson said, “Waiver requests for night operations and operations over people are the two top waiver requests we receive.”

The spokesperson said they did not have information on how many of those requests come from the real estate sector. The FAA declined to comment on why the new rules were proposed.

“I can’t help but wonder if this initiative is motivated by large suppliers, namely Amazon, that want to move forward with drone delivery on a regular basis. Any government initiative that may be motivated by large billion-dollar companies is concerning to me,” Stoll said.

But she can also see what everyday pilots in the drone world are doing, she added.

“Many drone pilots, some with the proper licensing, some without, are already flying over crowds and at night, more than likely, without a waiver. You see it all the time at large outdoor events like festivals, concerts and outdoor sports, such as surfing competitions,” Stoll said.

“It seems as though the FAA is taking the initiative to say they trust you will operate accordingly and as required as long as you follow these rules, a win for your everyday licensed drone pilot.

“Personally, my main concern is safety above all else. I have several helicopter and plane pilot associates who have had some scary situations with drones. I hope these regulations, if passed, will not be abused.”

Enforcement concerns

Brian Persons, a certified master inspector and owner of Front Range Home Inspections, also reflected on the potential for abuse. He himself wouldn’t benefit from the new regulations because, although he does use drones in his work, he doesn’t fly them at night or over groups of people.

“Enforcement is a whole different issue and many hobbyist[s] have taken over parts of the industry with lower pricing and no penalties or accountability (due to non-registration and lack of training by the user),” Persons told Inman via email.

“Though manufacturer[s] do have tracking software built in, there are so many it would be a huge task to try and regulate or enforce. So what you have left is damage control and who to blame when things go wrong. The operators that follow the rules are the easiest to track and penalize, but usually the safest and most observant. FAA was not prepared for this phenomenon but is trying to come up with solutions.”

GeoCV’s Yakubenko pointed out that new technologies always bring benefits and threats simultaneously, however, and that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be adopted. Think of cars, the internet, smartphones, he said.

“The new regulations take a reasonable approach to find a balance between allowing more freedom to operate drones, while taking precautions not to compromise public security tangibly,” he said.

Asked to comment, the National Association of Realtors didn’t say what it thought of the specific rules, but said it supported federal efforts to craft regulations to allow for the commercial use of drones in the real estate industry and is working to “secure FAA guidance” on the use of drones beyond visual line of sight.

Chao said the proposed drone rules will be published in the Federal Register “as soon as possible” and be open for public comment for 60 days after that. The FAA declined to specify a publication date.

Email Andrea V. Brambila.

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