The invention of drones has certainly shaken up the geospatial world, changing the way tasks are carried out and fostering the introduction of entirely new applications altogether.

One market that stands to both give to and gain from geospatial professionals — aerial imaging experts in particular — is real estate. As image-capturing experts within the mapping field increasingly take to drone technology to modernize their techniques, their value to real estate agents continues to grow.

Stephanie Spear, commercial regulatory policy representative for the National Association of Realtors (NAR), spoke about the growing use of drones for real estate at the inaugural 2015 Drone World Expo in San Jose. She says aerial imaging is definitely the most common real estate application for drone technology today. Real estate agents are, more and more, incorporating aerial imagery from drones to market commercial, residential and land sales like never before.

A New Marketing Method

“NAR is excited about the possibilities that drones and real estate present,” Spear says. Right now we’re trying to be as compliant as possible with the FAA.” With the existing regulatory climate in mind, she says some real estate agents are applying for Section 333 exemptions and becoming Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-approved operators themselves. The majority, however, are outsourcing the work and hiring existing drone pilots with 333 exemptions.

That said, the potential for contract opportunities between the real estate market and geospatial professionals using drones for image capture looks “big time” promising, Spear says. “A lot of realtors are excited about UAS imaging as a tool, but they themselves understand that there’s a lot of skill and science involved in the operation. So the idea that there’s this sort of population of experienced, knowledgeable and skilled operators is extremely appealing. Realtors already use professionals for different kinds of services. … They’re really excited to work with skilled operators.”

While the use of aerial images to market for-sale properties is not at all new to the real estate business, the use of drones to capture them is. “[Drones bring] speed, convenience and information to the consumer,” Spear says. They make the image-capturing process a lot quicker and more affordable than traditional methods, which involve the use of a planes or helicopters. What’s more, the property maps they create contribute to an increasingly remote consumer audience that shops around online for available property and can be easily swayed by the imagery available.

The real estate agents already using drones for marketing are totally thrilled, Spear says. “Ultimately, the realtor brand is based on information and UAS imagery helps get the consumer more and better information. So if we can help consumers make good decisions, help businesses find the right properties, it sort of helps inform the decisions that are made during real estate transactions. That’s what it’s all about.”

A Pilot’s Perspective

Carolina Digital Photo Group has been in the photography business for more than 30 years and real estate is one of its biggest markets. Real estate agents and developers contract the Charlotte-based business to take aerial images of their properties and, until 2015, they did it the bulky way, using manned aircraft.

Now that they’ve added a drone to their toolbox and hired an FAA-approved pilot, they’ve completed at least 20 drone-powered aerial imagery projects within one month alone.

“People are calling us like crazy,” says Steven Massi, drone division head at Carolina Digital Photo Group. He’d been with the company just three months as of November, and was already well acquainted with his role.

Using a DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ and lightweight camera, he flies the drones above and around mostly commercial buildings, including apartments, construction sites and stores. “It’s really anything that goes. It’s just the single-family property listing of less than $800,000 that’s tough.” Massi says, with regard to private residential property, most of the demand comes from high-end homes due to the price tag associated with drone imagery and property size.

The drone imagery comes as a component of an all-in-one package that includes ground shots, inside shots and aerial shots. “We’ve been doing aerial shots from airplanes and helicopters for years. But in my opinion, drones have really bridged the gap between the two,” Massi says.

Drones certainly don’t replace planes and helicopters because they cannot fly as high due to FAA rules. On the other hand, an airplane or helicopter cannot be flown as low as a drone. “For example, I just did a real estate shoot where I came down the street at 50 feet towards the house,” he says. “Then you get real close into the house and then I have a technique where you can fly right into the house, through the house, get video from inside the house, and fly outside the house and then go on up to about 400 feet and get a shot of all around the house.”

That “in-between kind of shot,” as Massi calls it — above ground level, but below plane level — offers a perspective that is not typically seen. Therefore, he says, the video and still images he captures during drone flights stand out from other, more traditional property listings online and hopefully get buyers to click.

Once the drone-powered image-capturing session commences, Massi edits the content into a completed video, which is initially shared with the client for review and ultimately sent to the client for posting anywhere online they see fit, including their website, YouTube, Vimeo, etc.

Massi, who obtained his 333 exemption in March 2015, is an experienced pilot of manned aircraft and has long enjoyed video editing. For that reason, he says this gig is a perfect fit.

He says real estate is definitely promising for drone pilots with a geospatial background because it rids the real estate agent or their contractor of the burden of having to learn how to operate the technology and get the exemption. “I think it’s better based on services and finding a company who has a person who’s certified to do it rather than making the investment themselves. Depending on what they want to do, it could be $3,000 to $4,000 out of pocket expense. ... It’s just too difficult to go and maintain the equipment needed. It’s almost an entire career itself.”

So far, business is booming. “We’ve already paid off the first drone and we’re almost paid off getting the new drone. Forecasts are we should have a fleet of drones by springtime. We’ll be looking for other pilots to help with the work we’ve got coming in.”

An Agent’s Approach

Douglas Trudeau, an associate broker based in Tucson, Ariz., has been a practicing real estate professional for the past 15 years. Since adopting drone technology to take still images and videos of for-sale lots, he too is getting calls from across the nation. He says his life has been turned upside-down, inside-out and sideways, in a good way. “I’m taking video marketing for homes to a whole new level.”

Trudeau’s, FAA-approved pilot uses a Phantom 3 Professional to capture imagery from the inside and outside of client property. “I go out and I tell my pilot where I want him to fly. He flies it. We check it and say, ‘OK, let’s do a retake of it. I want a little bit different angle or I need a little bit different approach to it.’ Then he does that and I do all of the editing. So roughly for every hour of shooting, it’s about two hours of editing,” he says. Trudeau is in the process of getting his own 333 exemption for the same drone his pilot has.

One of the biggest benefits of his inclusion of drones for image capture is that it has expanded his clientele. “It introduced me to the luxury market because I can do things that other realtors can’t. … So it brought me into that higher level, which is an advantage.”

Like Massi, his property listing videos are ultimately posted online and he says he’s definitely seeing a return on his investment. “I’m getting a lot of recognition on YouTube, which, in turn, is going to be bringing me a lot more business.”

His advice for other licensed drone pilots considering real estate: “Embrace it.” He compares what is happening today with drones to revolutionary developments like the horseless carriage and the smart phone. He expects the advantages of drone use to increase with time.

On the skeptical side, Trudeau acknowledges the wealth of negativity associated with the technology. Aware that many are concerned about their privacy and safety, he does his best to be transparent. He highlighted the importance of doing so in the same lecture Spear spoke in at Drone World Expo.

“If I have a neighborhood where people can see it in the air, all those neighbors that can see it in the air I go to their door, knock on the door, introduce myself saying, ‘Hi, my name’s Doug Trudeau. … Your neighbor down the street hired me to videotape their home using a drone. What you’re going to hear is going to sound like bees buzzing. That way you’ll know I’m in the air. If you have any concerns, can you please express those concerns now so we can address those before we take off?’”

As a result, he says not one person has complained or expressed any concern.

“Then I notify the local police,” Trudeau says. “‘Hey. I’m going to be in the air. I’m going to be at this address at this time. If you get any 911 calls … you know it’s just Doug and he’s videotaping out there.’ And they like it. When they get the call, they already have forewarning that I’m out there. And sometimes they cruise by. They want to see it too.”

Looking ahead, he says the future looks fantastic for the role of drones in real estate. It is a great time for geospatial professionals already using drones for aerial imagery, or considering, to extend their services to the market.

“This has brought my personal business to a level that I couldn’t have imagined two years from now. It’s exciting to see, what’s it going to be six months from now? What’s it going to be like 12 months from now? What’s it going to be like two years from now?”

To promote the importance of FAA compliance, the NAR has a dedicated section on drones for real estate on their website. It includes a directory of FAA-approved drone operators for real estate agents to contact should they need a pilot. Those interested in being added to the list are encouraged to contact the NAR.