Last Updated on January 31, 2021 by Jose Barrios
If you are not using a drone in your real estate photography business, you are missing out on some serious cash, not to mention you are more than likely losing customers.
I have held my UAS part 107 certification now for over two years, and just recently had to renew it, it only lasts for two years. Taking the test and flying within the law is a pain, but it is not something to be taken lightly.
If you want to grow your real estate photography business getting your FAA UAS part 107 certification is not a choice, it’s a must if you want to stay competitive.
The following list and recommendations are based on my experience, it is more than likely incomplete and could use more information, so take this as a starting point, not as the end-all of drone information, and always check the law as it is constantly changing.
Here is my list of 9 things you need to do to fly your drone for business:
1- Get an FAA part 107 UAS certification
Let’s get this out of the way right now. To fly your drone and take real estate photos or videos, you need to have an FAA part 107 UAS certification.
There are no exceptions, no excuses, no around this. Even if you are the real estate agent and are taking the drone images yourself, the second they go on the MLS they are considered for commercial use.
Free Online Part 107 study guides
- Tony & Chelsea Northrup free FAA Part 107 sUAS & Drone Certification Study Guide
- Free FAA Part 107 Drone Test Study Guide – Answers and Explanations
- FAA Remote Pilot – Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Study Guide
- Jonathan Rupprecht free Part 107 Test Study Guide For FAA Remote Pilot Airmen Certificate
I personally used Tony Northrop’s free video study guide, you might want to take an actual course. This I leave for you to decide.
2- Register your drone
Regardless of whether the drone is for recreational or commercial use, if it weighs more than 0.55 lb. or 250 gr with everything installed, including batteries, you need to register it.
If the drone is for commercial use, even if it weighs less than 0.55 lb. or 250 gr, you must register it. It’s only $5 per drone for a 3-year registration.
Here is the link to the FAA drone registration: https://www.faa.gov/uas/getting_started/register_drone/
The FAA also requires you to label your drone with its registration number. It can be a label, or you can do it with a sharpie, and it must be in a spot that is either visible or accessible without tools, like inside the battery compartment.
3- Have a preflight checklist
A preflight checklist might sound like something useless for a small drone, after all, they are almost like a toy, but a preflight checklist is the only proof that you did your due diligence before your drone took flight.
If the FAA ever questions you this checklist will demonstrate to the FAA inspector that you are taking safety seriously.
Just because you consider your drone small and harmless does not mean that it cannot cause harm to others, and the preflight checklist is how you prove that you took all the necessary steps to ensure the proper operation of your drone.
There are no pre-established checklists, either from drone manufactures or the FAA, so you must create and keep your own.
A list can be very simple but should cover some basic points about the condition of the drone before the flight and the area you will be operating in.
Drone Preflight Checklist
- Drone identifying info: If you own several drones, you need to differentiate one from another, the checklist needs to be relatable to a particular drone.
- Date/Time/Location of flight: Just like the line says, you need to record where and when the flight will take place.
- Check the weather: I don’t mean to write down the weather conditions, but you must state that you checked them before flying.
- Flight purpose: State why are flying that day
- Check air space and get authorization: Make sure to get approval for your flight before you take off if authorization is required.
- Check software firmware: Most drones will let you know if the software and firmware is up to date, check it before each flight, and take note.
- Calibrate drone if required: Some drones will require calibration before takeoff, if yours does, check it here.
- Survey the area you will be flying in: Inspect and take note of your surroundings, take note that you did this.
- Set RTH (return to home) altitude: Some drones let you establish a safe return home altitude. This is crucial in case of a lost connection link. It will allow your drone to return at a safe altitude without hitting anything along the way.
- Inspect drone before takeoff: Last but least, one last check-up that everything is where it is supposed to be and that nothing is loose before takeoff.
4- Keep a maintenance log
Just like on an actual aircraft, the FAA wants you to keep a log showing that you did maintenance on your drone at a specified interval.
Unfortunately for us drone pilots, no such maintenance schedules exist from the drone manufacturers that I know of, maybe I’m wrong, but I have never seen one.
You need to create and keep a log. It can be as simple as a notebook where you write down every 3 months any maintenance you have done to your drones, such as replacing batteries or propellers.
5- Get LAANC Approval
Before each flight you need to check and get flight approval, if needed, in the area you intend to fly your drone.
This approval in most major metropolitan areas can be obtained through the “Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability” system, LAANC for short.
The two most widely used apps for doing this are Airmap and Kittyhawk.
If you are denied LAANC authorization
Pro tip: if you are denied LAANC authorization, it is usually because of emergency responders in the area. This can be anything, from the police to firemen.
The easy way around is to reduce your flight radius. By default, automated flight apps like Airmap assume a large area of operation, in reality, you will never be more than a couple of hundred feet from the house you are photographing.
Just reduce your operating radius and you should obtain flight approval.
Do keep in mind that many airports, especially smaller ones, are not part of the LAANC system.
To get around this problem there are times where the only way to get approval is by contacting ATC (the airport control tower), but before you start calling them (we are prohibited from using radio as a normal aircraft does), check out their website. Many will have instructions on how to contact them and obtain flight approval.
If ATC approval is not obtainable and you are in a controlled air space, do yourself a favor and just don’t fly there.
You are not just risking getting a fine from the FAA (you knew beforehand you could not fly there, it’s in your checklist!), you are actually putting people and aircraft in danger because other aircraft are not aware that you are operating in that airspace.
Dealing with Geo-Fencing
When operating your drone you will come across some areas that are locked, your drone will just refuse to take off and fly, and no automated unlocking system is in place.
For these restricted areas you need to use a Scheduled Self-Unlocking. You must have prior authorization from the authority that controls the restricted airspace. Once you have this, you need to do a manual unlock by following the procedure defined by the drone manufacturer.
DJI has a procedure for doing this and you can access it here: https://www.dji.com/flysafe/self-unlock
If you are not able to secure the permit or the unlock, do yourself a favor and do not fly your drone in that area, the money is not worth it.
6- Keep your drone within line of sight
This is simple, and it is part of the part 107 test: if can’t see your drone, you can’t fly it there.
Most drones can fly very far from where you are standing, some models can even go out several miles/kilometers from the operator.
The FAA is very clear on this; you must always be able to see your drone without the aid of things like binoculars. If the drone will fly further than what you are able to see, you need one or more visual observers to help keep track of the drone while in flight.
Fortunately, in real estate photography, such extreme flying distances are not common. I have only confronted this problem when doing very large terrains, such as a farm, and have solved it by just walking or driving to other areas of the lot and flying from where I can keep the drone in my line of sight.
7- Never fly over 400 ft AGL
I don’t know about your drone, but mine will not fly over 400 ft even if I tried. I must go out of my way to unlock that feature.
There are situations where you are legally allowed to fly higher, the regulation says you can fly up to 400 feet AGL above the obstacle. In my experience, I have yet to find the need to go over the 400 ft limit when photographing houses.
8- Never fly over traffic or people
This is another no brainer, do not fly over people or traffic. The FAA doesn’t want you to do this, and in many municipalities, the city does not want you to do this either.
Up until the FAA changes this rule, don’t do it. FAA fines are not cheap.
9- Take off and land from public access property
Just like a regular aircraft, you are legally allowed to fly over private property, regardless of what the property owner thinks his rights are.
If someone questions you, you can just show them your pilots license and point out aircraft in the sky, they can’t stop those either.
The FAA is the only governing authority when it comes to airspace, and only they can make the rules.
The one thing you cannot do is take off and land on private property without prior authorization from the owners, just like a helicopter cannot land in your yard, your drone cannot land in someone’s private property.
So, when photographing homes with your drone, try to take off from the property you are photographing or from a publicly accessible area such as a sidewalk. Never use other people’s driveways or yards.
To operate your drone when doing aerial photography for real estate or other commercial venues you need to have a UAS Part 107 license and common sense.
Always think about what would happen if your drone were to hit something in the sky or on the ground. Your whole business could come to a screeching halt because of a bad decision made in haste for a few dollars extra.
The FAA did come up with these rules to impede your ability to work, it made them too protect others from reckless behavior.
As always, I hope this helps you become a better real estate photographer.
“What can I say? I love taking photos of houses.”
Based in Orlando Florida, Jose is a real estate photographer specializing in vacation homes, working for realtors and property managers to make their properties look great. You can visit his site at JoseBarriosPhoto.com.