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Realtor tests photo-taking drone

Despite FAA rules, broker sees view from sky as selling point

By John Magsam

This article was published December 9, 2013 at 12:58 a.m.

nwa-mediaandy-shupe-tim-stein-executive-broker-with-bassett-mix-associates-inc-pilots-a-remote-controlled-drone-that-he-uses-to-record-video-and-still-photographs-of-properties-wednesday-nov-27-2013-at-the-real-estate-companys-office-in-fayetteville

NWA Media/ANDY SHUPE - Tim Stein, executive broker with Bassett Mix & Associates, Inc., pilots a remote-controlled drone that he uses to record video and still photographs of properties Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2013, at the real estate company's office in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE - The flying camera buzzes like a gigantic bee as it hovers in the crisp November air.

Tim Stein, real-estate executive broker with Bassett Mix & Associates, guides the craft with a remote-control system linked to his iPhone. At his command, the white aerial vehicle obediently whooshes up to about 20 feet powered by four rotors and waits there patiently, parked in midair until its next order is given.

“I was shocked at how maneuverable it is,” Stein said. “I did hit a tree with it once, but it righted itself and went on its way.”

He’s experimenting with the unmanned aerial system, referred to by some as a drone, to see if he can use aerial photos and video to make properties more appealing. Recently, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told CBS’ 60 Minutes that the company is testing the use of drones to deliver packages, sparking more interest in the craft.

“There’s a bit of an investment, and other Realtors are nervous about it,” Stein said.

Stein is referring to stringent Federal Aviation Administration regulations that govern the uses of unmanned aircraft. The FAA is revising those rules to allow limited commercial use of unmanned craft which is denied under the current regulations. It’s part of a mandate from Congress that the FAA integrate drones into U.S. airspace by 2015.

Current rules say civilian companies can only operate unmanned aircraft systems if they have a special airworthiness certificate in the experimental category which does not allow the aircraft to be used for commercial purposes. Public agencies can fly unmanned craft if they’ve been awarded a government certificate of waivers or authorization.

The third category is recreational or sport use of model airplanes, which does not require special certification. These craft can be used only for hobby or recreational use. Users are advised to be sensitive to noise concerns, to keep clear of spectators, fly below 400 feet and keep a visual line of sight with the aircraft.

FAA spokesman Les Dorr said new rules, including those for small unmanned aircraft under 55 pounds like the one Stein uses, are being drafted and will be open to public comment in 2014. It’s unclear how long it would take before any new regulations are approved. Dorr said the goal for all the FAA regulations is safety and the rules will help minimize danger in the event an unmanned craft crashes or loses power.

When the FAA hears of possible violations, it tends to send a cease-and-desist letter or dispatch an FAA inspector to investigate. The number of cease-and-desist letters the association sends was not available, but that information is being gathered, Dorr said.

Larry Purcell, with the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture and holder of the Ben J. Altheimer Chair for Soybean Research, received a cease-and-desist order two years ago from the FAA for using an unmanned aerial vehicle to study soybeans to help develop drought-tolerant varieties. The division has the proper certification now, said Jim Robbins, an extension horticulture specialist, though getting the certification took 11 months and required extensive paperwork.

According to a March 2013 report, commissioned by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, integration of the unmanned craft into U.S. airspace will have an economic effect of $13.65 billion and create more than 70,000 jobs nationwide between 2015 and 2017, assuming new rules are adopted. For the 10-year period between 2015 and 2025, the economic effect will be $82.12 billion and create 103,000 jobs across the nation.

The report indicates that in Arkansas there will be an $80 million economic effect and more than 400 jobs created between 2015 and 2017. For the first 10 years, the state could expect economic effect of $481 million and the creation of 608 jobs.

The association is a nonprofit that supports the unmanned systems and robotics community.

Ben Gielow, government relations manager and general counsel for the association, said the United States is years behind Asia and Europe in the use of unmanned aircraft and is playing catch-up. He said plans were for the FAA to get rules out for public comment by May, but that deadline has been pushed back since 2011.

He said regulations dealing with autonomous craft, like the ones proposed by Amazon for small-package delivery, were years down the road.

If fully integrated into U.S. airspace, unmanned aircraft could be used for a wide variety of purposes including scientific research, agricultural uses like monitoring crops, environmental study, disaster mitigation and monitoring, and expanding commercial uses, like oil exploration, monitoring gear and equipment in remote locations, or aerial photography.

Stein said that though he does plan to charge additional fees for the aerial photography, it’s simply a complimentary addition to his existing marketing package right now, so he says he isn’t using the craft for commercial purposes.

He said using the aerial camera allows him to properly display large pieces of property, showing what key elements, like roads and waterways, are nearby. He added besides showing how a home looks from the outside, he can use the craft to easily show where a home sits in the neighborhood and what a subdivision itself looks like - a nice feature for folks who have a limited time to visit sites in person.

His DJI Phantom 2 came in early November with a price tag of about $1,500. China-based DJI is one of the world’s largest makers of unmanned aerial systems, and its North American offices are in Austin where it employs more than 500.

For now, Stein says he follows the guidelines for use of hobby aircraft - primarily not flying higher than 400 feet and always working in line of site with his aircraft - though the device will, if it loses its controlling signal, use satellite technology to fly back to its launch point and will hover there.

Robert Davis, owner of Little Rock-based Arkansas Aerials LLC and East Creek Studios, said he’s ready for the new FAA regulations and thinks having requirements to use the craft in business is wise. He said he spent more than three years learning to fly unmanned aircraft as a hobbyist.

He said, due to the current FAA requirements, he does not sell customers aerial photography packages instead ,they are billed for traditional ground photography and editing services. The company simply gathers aerial footage at no extra charge.

Davis said he believes those who fly unmanned aircraft need to have good insurance and be qualified to safely run the craft in all conditions. He said relying on automated systems is a poor practice.

“You can’t just trust your electronics,” Davis said. “Those systems fail.”

Brad Higbee of Eagle Eye Aerial Photography in Lowell has been in the business of photographing things from airplanes for years. He’s a commercial pilot and recalls he was kept busy during the boom days of Northwest Arkansas real estate before the bottom fell out in 2008.

He said he’s not concerned about competition from unmanned craft and he’ll welcome the new regulations. He said he will likely use an unmanned craft, when its clear he can do so and comply with FAA rules. He said the advances in unmanned aircraft and photography have been phenomenal in recent years, but the rules simply have not been able to keep pace with them.

Higbee noted that an unmanned aircraft is as cheap, if not cheaper, than a single decent camera and far less expensive to purchase and maintain than an airplane.

In the end though, the aircraft is simply a tool - a camera that’s airborne - and without a skilled photographer to capture photos and video and edit them, it’s not being used to its full potential.

“You still have to be an expert to capture just the right image,” he said.

Business, Pages 19 on 12/09/2013

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outinthesticks says... December 9, 2013 at 3:45 p.m.

And soon there will be drones displaying ads in your backyard while doing reconnaissance on your personal habits.......

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