Know Before You Fly.

Aerial photos and video are great for real estate listings, but did you know YOU and the drone pilot can be fined up to $11,000 by the FAA for each illegal flight?

Now that the FAA rules around aerial photography for commercial purposes (including real estate listings) are fairly clear, it is extremely important to only work with FAA licensed pilots – either a pilot that holds a Section 333 exemption or a person that holds a Part 107 remote pilot certificate.

If you are using someone that does not hold one of these certificates, you could be subject to fines up to $11,000 per occurrence and possible jail time!

However, just having the right credentials does not mean you can fly.  There can be local restrictions, either imposed by the FAA airspace classifications, or even the city.  Read below for specific detail of the situation in Seattle, currently the fastest growing city in America. The same situation is likely very applicable to your area.

Seattle Airspace Example

To illustrate the complexity and reason you need someone that knows what they are doing, let’s look at Seattle. The Seattle area has many airports that carve up the airspace between class B, C, D and E.  Certain high value residential areas, like ALL of Mercer Island and all much of the Seattle-Lake Washington waterfront are actually restricted areas.  If you fly here without approval, or meeting the rules, you are flying illegally and subject to fine, or worse…if something goes wrong, you could be looking at potential jail time too!

If you are using someone that has no knowledge of these airspaces, that is your first clue.  So do a test and ask them about airspace and see what they say.  If they have no idea what the solid blue, dashed blue or other lines means in the picture above, you should not use that person. Or, even what the orange circle means and why it is strictly prohibited to fly there. It is not worth the risk to you and your business. As part of getting a Part 107 certificate, you learn about these airspaces and why it is important to pay attention to them.

So let’s look at a couple of specific areas that are prime candidates for aerial imagery.

Mercer Island is a very affluent area where the average home is over $1 million, since it is 10 minutes from downtown Seattle, yet it has it’s own village like community.  ALL of Mercer Island is in a Class D airspace, because the Renton airport, and a Boeing plant, are just south of the island. The second a drone takes off, you are in Class D airspace.  That means you need FAA approval to fly there in the first place – before you fly!  To get approval, the remote pilot in command must fill out a form with the FAA and wait for approval. They say it can take up to 90 days!  Obviously this does not work well for real estate photography.

To speed the process, we have applied for an exemption from the FAA for the specific purpose of real estate photography on Mercer Island and the Seattle-Lake Washington waterfront, so we are waiting to see if we get approved.  If we do, then we should be able to do aerial photography on a much more timely basis and this will be an advantage over other providers as we will be 100% legal!

However…there is more. The City of Seattle has its own rules, of course!

Real estate photography comes under the Film Office jurisdiction. In order to do any kind of photography or video legally in the Seattle city limits for a commercial purpose, you MUST hold a Section 333 exemption, you have to have a permit (3 day period to get that at a minimum and $25 fee) and you need to meet their other rules.  A couple of onerous ones being you have to notify all people in the neighborhood 72 hours in advance AND you can’t fly within 500 feet of any nonparticipant unless they are under cover of a structure.

How is this practically applied for a real estate shoot?  Not very easily…

Per discussions with city employees, they are actively looking at how the Part 107 certificate holders (what FloorPlanOnline people have in most cases) can provide services legally.  Let’s hope they are smarter about this than other things the city does…  Until then we are not flying within the Seattle City limits.  If you are using someone that does, and they do not hold a Sec. 333 exemption specific for the purpose of filming (which I highly doubt anyone in Seattle has given it is public info and only 3 people have an exemption in the whole area), then you are doing it illegally.  Buyer beware!

So what is the risk of just doing it, either using someone not licensed or without FAA approval? The FAA is now handing out fines, that can reach up to $11,000 for each occurrence.  One guy that did not receive monetary compensation, yet the FAA viewed as a commercial purpose, received a $55,000 fine for 5 different events he filmed.  If a drone pilot has to land and change batteries, that is 2 occurrences, even if it is the same property.  You can see how this could add up.

Plus, the City of Seattle has prosecuted a drone operator that had a drone crash and knock out a lady during a parade.  He was sentenced to 30 days in jail.   Finally, what if a drone went rogue, hit an airplane or car and caused a catastrophic event.  You and others would be sued big time, not to mention you would likely be put out of business.

How would the FAA or City of Seattle find your aerial photos?  All they have to do is look on Zillow and view the images.  You as the listing agent will be listed.  So it would not be difficult for them to pursue this easily just by viewing photos people post online.  If they come knocking and you do not have the proof of legally being able to fly, you face fines or more penalties.

The bottom line is not to scare you.  But it is to educate you to make the right business decision and hire the right people for the job.  It is not worth you saving $50 or $100 to hire a college kid or unlicensed drone operator. We do have licensed pilots in WA, NJ, NY, CT, and TX, and more to come down the road. But as you see, just because you hold a valid license does not mean you can fly in all areas.  So be smart and know before you fly and hire the right company for the job!