Christopher Brown, co-owner of Next New Homes Group, uses his multi-rotor helicopter drone to take aerial video of a home in California in February 2014.
As part of its effort to clamp down on the commercial use of drones, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has started investigating real estate agencies that use flying robots to take aerial pictures and videos of houses and apartments.
Several realtors have received inquiries from the FAA regarding their use of drones, either by phone, letter or even subpoena, according to interviews with several people familiar with drones and the real estate business. The FAA maintains that its current regulations ban the use of drones for any commercial purposes, which include real estate agents or aerial photography companies that realtors hire to take shots of properties; in a document last week, the FAA clarified its rules on drones to include realtors.
But some argue those rules are unclear and ignore the FAA claims, confident that a recent court decision overturning a fine to a drone pilot allows enough breathing room in a rather murky legal situation.
On Tuesday, the New York Post reported that the FAA had sent subpoenas to some high-end realtors, citing a source with Halstead Property.
Brendan Schulman, a lawyer with Kramer Levin who specializes in drone cases, toldMashable that he knows of companies in the real estate industry that have received subpoenas from the FAA — not just in the last week, but over the last few months. Schulman couldn't specify which companies, though, and couldn't comment on whether he represents any of them.
"This is another example of the government interfering with safe reasonable use of new technologies,""This is another example of the government interfering with safe reasonable use of new technologies," he said.
Seth Levy, a real estate agent for Shawn Elliot Luxury Homes and Estates in Long Island, also confirmed toMashable that other realtors who use drones have said they received subpoenas and cease and desist letters from the FAA within the last year.
In the past, Levy has used drones to shoot videos like the one below. He said that using drones to film properties has helped him sell houses.
Around two months ago, after Newsday mentioned him in an article, Levy received a phone call from the FAA. The agency asked him about how he uses his UAV — how high he flies it, for how long and where. The FAA, however, never sent him a letter, a subpoena or a cease and desist letter, he told Mashable.
"I'm going to get so screwed for this article, it's not even funny,""I'm going to get so screwed for this article, it's not even funny,"he joked, adding that he wasn't worried.
An FAA spokesman declined to comment on whether it is investigating real estate agencies, but said that a company using a drone "in connection with a business" needs an FAA authorization. So far, the agency has never authorized "any commercial real estate operations," the spokesman told Mashable.
The National Association of Realtors recommends that real estate agencies not use drones "until the FAA issues further guidance or regulations," according to spokeswoman Sara Wiskerchen.
But it's not just realtors who are getting in FAA's crosshairs. SkyPan, an aerial photography company who has been hired by some real estate agencies, has also received subpoenas from the FAA last year, according to Mark Segal, SkyPan's owner.
The FAA allows amateurs to fly drones without special authorization, so long as they do it within line of sight, below 400 feet, and no closer than within five miles of an airport. This distinction, according to some experts and some realtors, is unfair.
“Note how absurd the FAA’s rule is," Gregory McNeal, a law professor at Pepperdine University who writes about drone laws, told Mash. "Photos of buildings for fun are lawful, the same photos for realtors is unlawful."
"There's no difference between a realtor or other business professional flying a drone than a hobbyst flying a drone," Levy said.
For other realtors, it doesn't matter; the FAA doesn't have the authority to regulate them. Bob Schwartz, a real estate broker in San Diego, California, said that he has never been in touch with the FAA, and he doesn't think the agency should interfere.
"I'm not a proponent of government regulating every phase of business," Schwartz toldMashable. "Technically, if it was a 500-pound drone with a Stinger missile or a Hellfire missile on it, yeah, get in there and regulate it. But
this is a little toy that weighs about three pounds. What's the big deal?this is a little toy that weighs about three pounds. What's the big deal?" he said referring to his DJI Phantom 2 Vision +.
Other real estate agencies, however, are cautious enough that they won't comment on whether they have received subpoenas, or even whether they use drones. David Quinnones, the owner of another photography company that has worked with real estate agencies, Sky Cam USA, declined to reveal whether he has received a subpoena, but criticized the FAA, saying that the agency "seems to do whatever it wants."
"Why are we being held back?" Quinnones asked.
"It's just as safe for either one and the commercial application should not affect the flight because it's the same airspace," Levy agreed. "Why discriminate between the realtor and hobbyist?”
For more on Mashable's coverage of unmanned aerial vehicles, check out Drone Beat.
BONUS: Drones vs. Government: Who Owns America's Skies?
Tags: DRONES, FAA, REAL ESTATE, U.S., US & World