Interview with Spark Aerial: Drones and the Implications for Real Estate

spark aerial & alex markson - drone on property capsule roof deck
Radley Angelo flying a drone on the Property Capsule roof deck

Drone technology is one of the biggest trends in the real estate industry – both commercial and residential – at the moment. The technology is poised to revolutionize the way that real estate is advertised, viewed and sold. But with so much information regarding the technology, FAA regulations and commercial use, it can be a bit overwhelming to know where to start – if at all.

We sat down with our friend Radley Angelo, CEO at Spark Aerial, to help you better understand what’s going on in the world of drones and the implications for real estate. Check out our interview below:

Q: A recent article by Inman News claims that drones are a polarizing topic, and there is a tremendous amount of inaccurate information and confusion regarding their usage. Would you agree?

A: Yes, absolutely. Drones are a perfect modern example of technology being developed and deployed at such a rapid pace that legislation and public opinion are having a hard time keeping up. On the one hand, you have these compact UAV systems transforming the landscape of major industries like surveying, mapping and even the film industry in Los Angeles, while on the other there are amateur operators crashing into the white house lawn. Both sides of the spectrum are receiving a lot of attention these days, but obviously the headline that’s going to generate the most clicks focuses on the latter. I think we’re going to see a big distinction between the hobbyist use of drones and professional applications. a differentiation which might to a lot to help sway public opinion.

Q: What affects – positive or negative – do you think that drones will have on the real estate industry as a whole?

If you look at a Drone as a pure piece of technology, just like another camera system or sensor platform, they’re the perfect tool to help augment what a lot of real estate agents and brokerages already offer their clients. Stunning aerials, contextual maps and real time awareness of properties are all services offered today by agents that employ drone services. In five to ten years, I expect the technology to advance to the point of actual autonomy, removing a lot of the need for manual operation in the field. Overall, I think every stage of the real estate market is going to feel the effects of this tech, from listing agent to homeowner. It’s not dissimilar to the effect inexpensive digital photography had way back when to make listing homes that much easier.

Broader than just the tech, though, the widespread adoption of these systems (which is happening right now) poses quite a few regulatory and privacy questions that no one has perfect answers to just yet. This will come in time, though, and the hope is that sensible legislation will help guide the future of this industry instead of impeding it.

Q: Can you give some background information on how drones are currently being used in the real estate industry?

A: Drones today are primarily used for marketing purposes in the Real Estate industry. Photos and videos create a compelling story for potential customers and buyers. This story translates very well to the web, which is perfect for garnering interest outside of the immediate vicinity of the property. We’ve filmed promotional videos for developing lots, for example, that will soon be multi-million dollar mansions. These videos were dubbed over in Mandarin and presented to wealthy investors in China, creating a much wider audience for the developer and the potential of a sale. This sort of marketing work is crucial, especially in an age where easily digestible digital media is the key to connecting with your audience.

Besides just marketing though, aerial data can help developers from the early stages of construction all the way to the point of sale. We’re currently developing an online system to help catalog this data, which will be incredibly valuable for all stages in the Real Estate pipeline. Though we’re focusing more on construction management to start, the potential to analyze jobsite and geo-tagged data to perform real world analytics will undoubtedly yield a wealth of information.

Q: Aren’t agents who use drone technology breaking the rules?

A: Technically, yes. According to the FAA, flying one of these devices for commercial purposes is against current regulation. (Flying the exact same system, it should be noted, is completely ok if it’s for recreational purposes, a very confusing distinction for many.) These rules are changing to adapt to this technology. The FAA’s goal has always been the safety of the NAS (National Airspace) a job which they take very seriously. They’ve been slow to announce legislation that would allow small drones to operate at low altitudes, but it is a pretty monumental task. The hope is that sensible legislation is the ultimate result of all these delays.

Q: The FAA recently granted permission to Realtor Douglas Trudeau of Tierra Antigua Realty in Tucson, Arizona the right to legally use a drone for real estate photography. This came with a lot of specific requirements. What do you think this means for the industry moving forward?

A: I think it’s progress! The agent in particular is flying a DJI Phantom, pretty much the ubiquitous drone for hobbyists and Real Estate photographers. When they announced this particular exemption, online forums exploded at the possibility of getting an exemption for this very popular device. It meant that the safety features of the Phantom, including GPS and return to home functionality, met the minimum requirements of the FAA for safe operation in the NAS. That’s a hugely important moment, when hobby grade equipment is adequate in the eyes of the regulating body.

 

As for all the additional amendments to the exemption, which included that the agent be required to obtain a pilot’s license and to fly within line of site, those are really holdovers from the initial exemption granted to Astraeus Aerial. This was the first exemption granted in the US, and in it the FAA decided that a private pilot’s license was required to operate a drone in the NAS. Every exemption since then has included this clause.

 

I think that for this to change, we’re going to have to wait for the FAA to release it’s actual plan for widespread adoption of small Drones into national airspace. Till then, these one off exemptions are just stop gaps to show the public that progress is being made.

Q: Do you think that FAA regulations will become more flexible in the future? If so, how should agents prepare?

A: Absolutely. At this point, the FAA isn’t really in a position to outright ban Drones. It just wouldn’t work; there are tens of thousands of these units being shipped across the United States every month. It’s also not in the interest for thousands of businesses and entrepreneurs (myself included) building tools for the eventual reality of Drones being allowed to be used commercially. So the FAA will release some kind of plan. I’m actually totally in favor of this, and I actually hope that some type of licensing system is put in place. At the very least, operators should have to pass a test that would allow them to operate these aircraft. To prepare, it’s going to be valuable to have real stick time on one of these aircraft. A simulator is a great place to start, I recommend RealFlight, a PC based simulator that comes with a controller. Learning how to fly before investing in a system or pursuing a license (when that’s an option) is a great way to get started and become a safe operator.

Q: Can you give some insight into drone technology in general and what types of things people in the real estate industry should look for when considering a drone purchase?

A: Drone technology is moving so fast, the best I can offer is a snapshot of things I recommend to first time fliers right now. DJI, a Chinese based company, has quickly become the default name in this space. Their entire product line offers the functionality agents should be looking for, from safety features like return to home to automatic photo snapping. For purely still photos, I recommend the Phantom Vision 2+. If you’re interested in video, a good place to start is the Phantom 2 with the Zenmuse Gimbal system to stabilize a GoPro in the air. It’s a little more expensive when you break down all the components, but a lot of companies sell kits to get you started. Regardless of what you fly, it’s crucial that you learn to operate these devices safely! I compare it to driving a car. Would you get behind the wheel of a Ferrari if you’ve never set foot in a driving school? Probably a bad idea. But with a little practice and the right training, the sky really is the limit for what you can create.

Q: What are the different price points of drones?

A: Drones can be purchased for as little as $80, and as much as $250,000 for a professional mapping unit. For the real estate market, the $1,100 Phantom Vision 2+ is often more than adequate.

Q: What are the services that Spark Aerial offers to the real estate industry, and how can people get in touch with you?

A: In light of current FAA legislation, we are scaling back our Real Estate photography and video services. However, our mapping services for development projects are charging full steam ahead, as this is a software based system where our focus is on developing a platform onto which drone operators and construction developers can display their data. We welcome inquiries of all kinds, you can contact us through our website, www.sparkaerial.com. The contact form gets checked every day, and we’d love to hear from your readers!

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For more information about drone technology, be sure to read our latest blog on the Top CRE Tech Trends for 2015. Questions? We’re always just a call or ping away. Find us on Twitter and Facebook, among others!

 

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