How to Use Drones Legally for Commercial Purposes

How to Use Drones Legally for Commercial Purposes

Before I discuss the current legal landscape surrounding commercial drone use, namely FAA Part 107 regulations, I would like to briefly discuss the recent legal and illegal use of drones for commercial purposes. Once the cost of drones was significantly reduced, and individuals and businesses realized that there was much money to be made by pursuing commercial drone business, the FAA began to feel immense pressure by the public to provide some form of regulatory framework to operate by. In the absence of that, there was a flurry of illegal drone prior to the FAA’s adoption of UAS regulations.


Prior to 2015, drone operations that were of a commercial nature were considered to be illegal. Period. However, this didn’t mean that people weren’t brazenly defying these laws in pursuit of the almighty dollar. Reports can be found as early as 2013 of people illegally providing commercial drone services, and even advertising these services on their websites.


Some people would try to get around the commercial use ban, by stating that the drone flight itself was free, and they were only charging customers for video editing. This tactic didn’t fool anybody, including the FAA, as cease and desist letters began to be sent to these businesses by the FAA. 17 cease and desist letters were sent to UAS operators in 2012 and 2013.


However, due to the unfinished nature of the FAA regulations, many operators began to push back against the FAA enforcement of its fluid regulatory structure. In 2011, a drone operator named Raphael Pirker was hired by the University of Virginia to obtain aerial photo and video, and was subsequently fined $10,000 by the FAA for flying his drone “in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.” The infractions alleged by the FAA were that he flew at extremely altitudes, in the vicinity of moving cars in a tunnel, and in close proximity to railroad tracks. Pirker fought this decision, and took his case before an administrative law judge at the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB). He argued that since the FAA had not issued any formal rules governing drone use, it had no authority to fine people operating drones. The NTSB judge agreed with Pirker on March 6, 2014. The judge asserted that if the FAA’s interpretation of its existing regulations were correct, then its position would then result in the argument that any flight in the air could be subject to these regulations, to include paper airplanes, balsa wood gliders, or any other toy aircraft. The FAA immediately appealed the decision, and subsequently settled with Pirker for $1,100 in January 2015. What his case did was essentially leave the FAA powerless to regulate commercial drone usage in the United States while the appeal process was being carried out. This was a very interesting read, and I highly recommend taking a few minutes to check it out.



Section 333 Exemptions

During 2014, the FAA was increasingly under fire for not providing a formal process for drone operators to legally enter the national airspace system for commercial operations. In response to this public scrutiny, the FAA began allowing commercial operators to petition for legal entry into the National Airspace System (NAS). All aircraft that operate in the national airspace require a certificated and registered aircraft, a licensed pilot, and operational approval. From the FAA website, “Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (FMRA) grants the Secretary of Transportation the authority to determine whether an airworthiness certificate is required for a UAS to operate safely in the National Airspace System (NAS).” Prior to the finalization of the small UAS rule (Part 107), the FAA would review petitions on a case-by-case basis to determine whether certain unmanned aircraft were deemed safe enough to perform commercial operations.  As of September 28, 2016, 5,552 Section 333 exemptions have been granted, with the first one occurring on September 25, 2014 for Aerial MOB to perform closed-set filming.


For now, if you currently have a Section 333 exemption, it will still be in effect until it expires, which is usually two years after it was issued. In addition, the FAA is still processing Section 333 exemptions. It is unclear whether Section 333 Exemptions will continue to be granted into the foreseeable future, or whether the Part 107 rules will become the supreme law of the land, but for now they are still a viable path to pursue legal entry into commercial drone applications. The FAA has done a very nice article providing some guidance to individuals about determining your best option between Section 333 exemptions and Part 107 certifications here:


FAA Part 107 Regulations

The small UAS regulations (Part 107) set forth by the FAA took effect on August 29, 2016, and allowed a legal way for drone operators to conduct commercial operations for drones weighing less than 55 pounds. The full version (624 pages) of these regulations can be found here:


I will be discussing how these regulations affect anybody shooting real estate photo and video. A more reader-friendly version of the regulations can be found here:


Before you operate a drone for commercial purposes, you must be a licensed Part 107 UAS pilot. I will be discussing this in greater in a later post, but the basic information can be found here:


Additionally, your drone must be registered for commercial purposes. The registration process is extremely simple, and the instructions for registration can be found here:


I have summarized the major operational limitations below, and explained how they affect the individual shooting drone video for real estate purposes.


Operational Limitations

  • The unmanned aircraft must weigh less than 55 lbs.
  • This regulation does not put any burden on the typical operator that is shooting real estate videos, as most systems that would generally be used weigh much less than the 55 lb limit, with most weighing less than 10 lbs.
  • The drone can only be flown visual line-of-sight (VLOS) only.
  • This regulation should not prove to be particularly cumbersome to those shooting real estate videos. This essentially just means that you must be able to maintain visual contact with the drone at all times. This could become an issue if you needed to shoot video behind a tall building. But upon full reading of the regulation, the FAA seems to put some wiggle room in the interpretation. It gives the example of a roof inspection, stating that it was acceptable to lose VLOS “briefly” behind the building, as long as it would be possible to quickly maneuver the drone back into visual contact. Basically, just use your common sense with this requirement. If the video you are shooting only requires you to lose visual contact for a few moments, then you are probably okay. If you will have an obstruction between you and the drone for the entire length of the video, then you are probably not satisfying VLOS requirements.
  • At all times the drone must remain close enough to the remote pilot in command and person manipulating the flight controls to be able to see the aircraft with unaided vision (corrective lenses are acceptable)
  • This regulation means that binoculars are not acceptable, and drones with first person view (FPV) must use a visual observer to maintain visual contact with the drone if the operator is viewing the video through the controller screen. This should only pose a challenge if the property has lots of acreage that must be covered.


  • Drones may not operate over persons not participating in the operation, unless they are under a covered structure or inside a stationary vehicle
  • In most cases, this requirement should not present any issues, but if this is a problem, it is one of the regulations that is waiverable, which I will explain later
  • Daylight-only operations, or civil twilight if the drone is outfitted with appropriate anti-collision lighting. The anti-collision lighting must be visible for 3 statute miles.
  • Most real estate photo and video will be taken during daylight hours, but if nighttime photo or video is desired, perhaps to showcase a beautiful skyline at night, the drone operator can also apply for a waiver to this requirement.
  • Must yield right of way to other aircraft
  • No explanation needed
  • May use visual observer (VO) but not required
  • The decision of whether or not to use a visual observer will come down to what is being captured, aerial photo or video. If only aerial photos are being captured, a visual observer is a nice to have, but not a necessity. You can navigate the drone to the desired location, adjust the camera as needed, take the shot, and move on to the next shot without any issue with maintaining the VLOS requirements. However, if aerial video is being captured, then a VO is definitely a necessity. You will want the VO to maintain visual contact with the drone, while the person manipulating the controls views the video as it is being captured, to ensure that the video is fluid, and all appropriate transitions and angles are being captured. This will help to limit the number of times the video must be recorded.
  • Maximum groundspeed of 100 mph, and maximum altitude of 400 feet above ground level




State Drone Regulations

In addition to the federal drone regulations put forth by the FAA, several states have also adopted their own sets of drone regulations. As of this writing, the following states have passed their own sets of drone regulations:


  • Arkansas
  • Alaska
  • California
  • Delaware
  • Florida
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Louisiana
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Michigan
  • Mississippi
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • North Carolina
  • North Dakota
  • Oregon
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Virginia
  • West Virginia


Wherever you are recording drone videos, it is imperative that you verify that you are not violating not only FAA regulations, but also your state and local regulations. The following link gives a great synopsis of the most recent drone regulations that are being put on the books:



Applying for an FAA Waiver/Airspace Authorization

As previously mentioned, there are some sections of Part 107 regulations that are waiverable. These regulations are listed below:


  • Operation from a moving vehicle or aircraft
  • Daylight operation
  • Visual line of sight aircraft operation
  • Visual observer
  • Operation of multiple small unmanned aircraft systems
  • Yielding the right of way
  • Operation over people
  • Operation in certain airspace
  • Operating limitations for small unmanned aircraft


The link on the FAA website to request a waiver to any of the regulations listed above can be found here:


Another useful link I found for this process is the listing of Part 107 waivers granted. You can scroll through these, look for your particular waiver, and see what additional documentation the FAA required of these individuals in order to waive the regulation.


It should be noted that there is no guarantee that a waiver will be granted. The FAA evaluates on a case-by-case basis to determine that the UAS can be operated safely within the conditions of the waiver. It should also be noted that the FAA recommends that these waivers/airspace authorizations should be applied for at least 90 days in advance in order to give them time to process.



Privacy Concerns

We are now in a situation as a society where a great number of private citizens are in possession of a machine that can literally hover over your backyard and watch what you and your family are doing. The FAA does not explicitly address the privacy concerns that are created by drone usage, it simply suggests that all drone operators check local and state regulations with regards to privacy practices while collecting drone photo and video. Some state regulations put forth thus far address privacy concerns by explicitly stating that it is illegal to capture images that can be used to identify other individuals without their express consent. Even in situations where state and local regulations do not explicitly ban drone usage over other’s property, it is best to exercise good judgment, and not violate the privacy of others when flying your drone. When operating your drone for real estate photography, do your best to only capture the prospective property, and not the surrounding homes. For situations where this is not possible, remove as many as properties as possible during the video editing phase.

Final Thoughts

The drone photography world is moving very fast. In an effort to keep up, federal, state, and local government are putting forth legislation to address this new form of media. It is up to you to ensure that you are following all laws, federal, state, and local, before you operate your drone commercially. Ignorance will not be an acceptable excuse if you find yourself to be in violation of any regulations. Well, that’s all I have for today. Now for my legal disclaimer. I am not a lawyer, nor do I claim to be an expert on drone regulations. The opinions expressed on this site are simply that, my opinions. Use them as guidance only. Next week I will be showing a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether you as a realtor should be operating your own drones, or be hiring local drone service operators. See you next week!










What is a Drone



Unless you have been living under a rock for the past few years, you have certainly heard the term “drone”. This has become a blanket term that encompasses any aircraft that does not have a pilot inside. Some are operated solely by a human operator, while others operate by some form of autopilot system and a pre-determined flight plan. While their original applications were almost exclusively for the military, the recent reduction in costs for small drones has led to a boom in the commercial market, with drones now being used for any number of things, from aerial photography, law enforcement, agriculture, and even drone racing. Basically, any industry that can benefit from an aerial vantage point is either currently using drone technology, or will be in the near future.


But what exactly is a drone? In this post, I will be explaining the basic components that make up a drone, and their applications and benefits for the real estate community.



For this discussion, I am going to stick to quadcopters. While fixed wing and helicopter drones could be used to capture real estate videos, quadcopters are in my mind the best fit for real estate applications. There are several drone manufacturers in the market right now that provide phenomenal products with which to capture breathtaking stills and video. Since I own a DJI Phantom 3 Professional drone, I am going to use this for my example. Each drone will be slightly different, but most of the major players feature very similar functionalities. My intention is not to get into an in-depth discussion of every component of a typical quadcopter, just simply give an overview of the major components. If you want a more in-depth discussion, I highly recommend the following sites that I have run across during my research:



The drone frame holds all the major components together. Most drones currently being made are of composite construction, which makes them lightweight, allowing for more payload, and more maneuverable. Quadcopter frames will have landing gear, which extend vertically downward from the center section to allow for safe stable takeoffs and landings. These gear will extend slightly past the camera, to allow enough clearance as to not impact the camera during takeoff and landing. In my experience, the quadcopter frame is fairly sturdy. They cannot sustain a complete vertical drop from several hundred feet, but they also will not shatter with mild collisions with structure.



For a quadcopter, there are 4 sets of motors and propellers. These extend outward from the center of the frame, and provide the aerodynamic mechanism by which the drone maneuvers. The propellers provide the actual lift that get the drone off the ground. They are essentially the same type of propellers that you would find on any other R/C airplane. By the control inputs given by the operator, or an autopilot system, the speed at which the motors rotate determines the flight direction of the quadcopter. If the drone is commanded to ascend, all motor speeds will increase. Conversely, if it is commanded to descend, all motor speeds will increase. To make a quadrotor turn right, motor speeds will be increased on the left side and decreased on the right side to make it tilt right.


The drone battery is one of the largest overall drivers of drone size and weight. For my Phantom 3 Pro, the battery makes up approximately 25% of the overall weight. The overall flight time of the drone is also going to be proportional to the battery size. The longer the desired flight time, the larger the battery needs to be, but that also drives up the structural weight, thus requiring an even larger battery. This is the vicious cycle that all aircraft designers have struggled with since the dawn of flight. DJI publishes a flight time of 23 minutes for the Phantom 3 Professional. This is total time to complete battery failure. In practice, you do not ever want to approach this limit. The Phantom 3 has a cool feature that will make the drone automatically return home when the battery life reaches its critical limit, which is usually 25% battery life. Once it reaches this limit, the drone automatically returns home to the home point initially recorded at takeoff.



A top-notch camera is the most important part of your drone if you are going to be using it for aerial photography purposes. Many current drones on the market carry 4K cameras. But what exactly is 4K? It simply means that there are approximately 4,000 pixels in the footage width. It brings photo and video clarity to a whole new level. I am by no means an expert on 4K video technology, but the link below gives a great explanation. Definitely check it out if you want an in-depth discussion of 4K video.



The camera gimbal is as important as the drone itself, as it maintains stabilization of the camera during flight. Without it, photo and video would be very choppy. Most gimbals on the high-end camera drones are 3-axis brushless gimbals. There are 2 components to these, the gimbal itself, and the gimbal mount. The gimbal attaches directly to the camera, and provides 3-axis stabilization. Many also allow the drone camera to rotate during flight. The gimbal on my Phantom 3 allows the camera to be rotate from -90 degrees (looking directly down) to +30 degrees above the horizon. The other component to the gimbal system is the gimbal mount. The gimbal mount attaches at 4 points to the center of the frame. At each of these points there is a shock absorbing material that acts to isolate the camera from the high vibration of the quadcopter propellers.




Now that we have discussed the basic components that make a typical drone that could be used for real estate purposes, let’s talk about actual applications in which drone photography would provide additional value to your marketing efforts.


Luxury Properties

Let’s face it. When anybody starts looking for a new home, the first place they go is the Internet. If your listing for your high-end luxury property has captivating drone photos and video, potential buyers are going to notice that. It’s not standard for all online real estate listings to provide drone photo and video, but it won’t be very long before it is commonplace. Here are the things that can be provided by drone video that cannot be offered by ground-based photography:

  • Spatial orientation between the home and nearby amenities, such as a park or swimming pool.
  • An aerial perspective that showcases the entire property and land in one shot
  • Easily provide shots of the home at multiple angles
  • Showing the potential buyer what the drive home might look like
  • Stunning fly-bys of the prominent outdoor features, such as gardens, swimming pools, or entertainment areas

Here is a video showcasing luxury properties using aerial drone footage:


Commercial Properties

Commercial properties will benefit from drone photography in the same way as luxury properties. Here are just a few of the types of commercial real estate that could potentially use drones for their marketing campaigns:

  • Golf courses – Some golf courses are using drone photography for hole by hole tours of the course. This provides golfers with an excellent reference to prominent features of each hole. Check out this great video of a golf course flyover by a drone:


  • Apartment complexes – Multi-unit residential units could highlight all the amenities of the property, such as swimming pools, tennis courts, fitness centers.


Hopefully, you now have some basic information of what a drone is, and how it can be used to improve your real estate marketing. In next week’s post, I will be discussing the current legal climate of using drones for real estate photography, with the focus being on the FAA’s Part 107 drone laws.


Welcome to Real Estate Drone Photography! Before I start talking about all the wonderful things my blog is going to do for you and your real estate business, I want to talk about why I am doing this. From the time I was a small child, I was completely mesmerized by anything that flew. My mother was always terrified that I would grow up to be a fighter pilot, because when I was 3 years old I didn’t want to watch cartoons, I wanted to watch Top Gun. Well, I didn’t grow up to be a fighter pilot, but I did grow up to be an Aeronautical Engineer.


In the past year, I have become absolutely obsessed with drones. The pace at which these technologies is advancing is astonishing. 10 years ago, it would have been unthinkable that the average consumer could obtain a quadcopter that could hover by itself using GPS signals, return home if the satellite signal was lost, AND deliver stunning high-definition video, all for less than $1,500. But that’s where we are. And it’s only going to improve from here. With the large number of drone companies entering the market, the only limit to what these wonderful machines will be capable of is the limit of the human imagination. We truly are on the verge of a technological revolution.


That’s enough about why I am doing this. What do I hope to accomplish here, and what information do I hope to convey?


What is a drone?

I’ve talked about how much I like drones, but what exactly is a drone? When you heard the word “drone”, this term may conjure up images of covert military operations being carried out in far away lands. While this is one area of application, the use of drones has become much more commercially widespread. I will be addressing the types of drones that are available commercially, their applications, and how exactly drones obtain and process data.


Is it legal to use drones for business purposes?

The FAA has recently relaxed the restrictions on drone use for commercial purposes. They haven’t been loosened to the point where Amazon is going to be delivering packages across town anytime soon, but for an individual with the proper credentials, valuable marketing materials in the form of aerial photo and video can be obtained quickly and efficiently. In addition to FAA regulations, several states have created their own set of drone regulations that must be followed. Don’t worry, you don’t have to have a legal background to interpret these rules.


Why should I use drone photo and video for my real estate marketing efforts?

The answer to this one should be fairly obvious. What’s more impressive to you, looking at stills taken at ground level, or stunning 4K footage taken from above? Drone photo and video will never replace traditional real estate photography, but they will become a standard addition in the next few years. Why not start taking advantage of this competitive edge now, not when your nearest competitor has incorporated it into their marketing efforts?


Should I buy my own drone, or should I hire a drone service provider?

The answer to this question will depend on how often you actually need drone photo and video for your listings. If you routinely find yourself in a situation where aerial video would be a great asset, it may make sense for you to go to the trouble of buying your own drone, becoming a FAA certified remote pilot, and actually learning to fly your new toy. Otherwise, you may want to find a local competent, safe, remote pilot to provide the drone photography services for you. I will go through the process for each approach.


The questions posed above are by no means an exhaustive list of topics which I intend to cover. I’m sure that in the process, I will think of many other questions that need to be answered. This is a rapidly changing technology, and one that I am very excited about. I hope you are excited too.