Drones: A Pre-Flight Checklist for Commercial Real Estate Pros

phantom3dronesbrasil.pngThe biggest buzz in commercial real estate is coming from the hundreds of thousands of camera-equipped drones licensed to fly in the United States.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently changed its rules for commercial use of the small flying machines, officially known as Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS). Previously, commercial use of drones was limited to licensed pilots and required a special government waiver. As of August 2016, that rule has been revised.

Today, anyone who passes a test (and jumps a few more regulatory hurdles) can pilot a drone for profit. Experts have estimated that, over the next decade, drones will have a multi-billion dollar impact on industries such as agriculture and retail. It will also open up hundreds of thousands of new job opportunities.

What do these changes in drone regulation mean for commercial real estate?

For one, it means there will be a lot more companies offering their aerial photography services to CRE agents. And you'll probably have a lot more questions.

  • If I've never hired a drone company to shoot my listings, where do I begin?

  • Why are drones a good way to showcase my property?

  • How can I tell a real professional from a not-so-polished amateur?       

To find the answers, we asked a bona-fide UAS aerial photography professional.

John Mims is the founder of Triad Aerial, a video and photography business based in Greensboro, NC. He’s been using drones to take video and photographs as a hobby for years. Most of the work his company does now is focused on commercial real estate.

We asked him to share some advice for CRE agents interested in hiring a UAS company.


When it comes to UAS and CRE, here are the

There are 3 things a drone operator MUST have: 

A License

All commercial UAS operators must have permission from the FAA. Pilots must be over 16, must have a Remote Pilot Airman Certificate and must have been vetted by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). NOTE: North Carolina also requires commercial operators to obtain an additional permit.

Liability Insurance

Any serious UAS pilot who earns money flying drones will have liability insurance. The policy must be drone-specific, aircraft liability insurance because most regular liability insurance will not cover UAS operation. The standard for UAS operators is to have policies that provide $500K to $1M worth of coverage. 

“My insurance policy makes me feel safe.  I have no intention of crashing my drone, but accidents do happen.”  - John Mims, Triad Aerial

UAS insurance provides essential protection for the pilot, you, your client and anyone in the vicinity during filming. It can also provide piece of mind for any damage to property that might result from an accident.   

Drone Photography Experience

Obviously, you want to hire someone who has done this sort of thing before. It’s your decision whether to require specific experience in commercial real estate photography, but it’s probably a good idea to find a company that has some kind of UAS photography background.

“It takes a pilot who has shot video before to be able to do it well. You want to see that work because a video can really set your property apart.” - John Mims, Triad Aerial

Ask to see samples of work that include both video footage and still photography. You want a skilled pilot AND a capable photographer. Figure out if the person behind the controls has an eye for the basics: lighting, composition and framing. Does their footage “feel” professional?

Don’t feel shy about “judging their art,” because this is not about creative expression. You’re paying for a certain level of professional competence.

There are 3 key advantages of UAS photography:

Perspective & Scope

The main draw of UAS photography is the ability to shoot buildings and property from way up high. It looks impressive. It sets your listing apart. But don’t let your imagination be limited to the standard aerial.

One distinct advantage that a UAS has over helicopters and planes is its ability to move in almost any direction. Fifty feet up can be just as dramatic as 400 feet. For larger industrial and warehouse spaces, many UAS pilots can provide comprehensive interior footage.

And here’s another bonus for drones and CRE: UASs can give buyers a much clearer picture of the listing’s location in context. It can provide a moving picture of exactly where it is in relation to things like major roads, bodies of water, retail and mass transit.

Here's a perfect example: footage of the Hampton Lodge Campground in Coinjock, NC shot by the Hampton Roads-based company, Three Wire Aerial Imaging



Affordability & Flexibility

One big advantage that a UAS has over planes and helicopters? Cost.

You can expect to incur hundreds in fees just to get a full-sized aircraft fueled and off the ground. The price for drone photographers varies. While hiring one will usually cost more than a traditional CRE photographer, packages can range from $300-$1000.

“Anything less than $200 and I would wonder if the person really knew what they were doing.” - John Mims, Triad Aerial

Drones are also more flexible. Piloted aircraft are also limited by stricter regulations and require proximity to an airport or landing pad. Weather becomes much more of a factor and maneuverability is limited. Planes can only circle and helicopters can’t hover below 500 feet. The airspace for a UAS can cover everything from ground level to close to 40 stories up.

Photos & Video

The cameras in mid-level, professional drones are capable of shooting high-definition 4K video and 12MP photos. Any frame from the video can be used as an HD still photo, which provides an amazing selection of shots that can be used to highlight your building or property.

Short digital videos can be uploaded and shared, giving your listing an appeal that goes far beyond a static brochure or web page.

Here's a video put together by Triad Aerial for the Hickory Building in Greensboro. 

There are 3 key things to consider before a shoot:


In photography, light is the primary concern. Studio photographers have bright spotlights and filters, but drone pilots rely on the sun.  

“Typically I'll look at the site on Google Maps to check the direction of the building. Depending on which way  it's facing will determine what time of day I'll shoot it.” 
- John Mims, Triad Aerial

Time of day also matters when it comes to human and automobiles. If you’re showcasing an available retail property or restaurant, you want to shoot during a busy time of day that highlights healthy customer traffic in the area. If you’re shooting an office or industrial space, you may want to schedule when there are fewer cars in the lot to highlight ample parking for your future tenant.


Property Condition

The fact that “a UAS can see everything” can be both a blessing and a curse.

Think about your roof. Few CRE professionals think about how the roof of their building will represent itself in pictures, because most buildings are shot from street level. It’s probably a good idea to do a quick recon of the top of the property to address simple cosmetic issues like clutter, leaves or standing water.

“Also make sure you're not having work done to the building. I’ve shown up to find painters on ladders... you can’t have that.” - John Mims, Triad Aerial

A hovering UAS also has a habit of exposing ugly landscaping. While it’s probably not necessary to do a full groundskeeping makeover, at the very least, you may want to rake the leaves, mow the lawn or clear away dead brush. 

The Shot List

The shot list is something that should be shared with the drone photographer ahead of time. This gives the pilot ample time to prepare for any obstacles or challenges.

What goes on the shot list? Everything you feel is essential for selling the listing. Think of what a regular photographer would do and don’t forget to cover the basics. Remember, you’re not hiring an independent filmmaker to “shoot some extreme footage.”  Your ultimate goal is to close.

REMEMBER: Drone technology is just another tool to help you do what you already know how to do best. Keep real estate selling fundamentals in mind at all times and no matter where your drone flies... you'll always land on your feet.

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