Valley real-estate photographers are using drones to shoot aerial shots of residential properties despite a federal ban on the use of unmanned aircraft.
Using lightweight radio-controlled helicopters to shoot photos and videos that show homes in context to neighbors, golf courses and other nearby landmarks, the photographers are finding ways to work around federal rules.
“Technically, I can’t charge for any of the flying,” said Luke Pierzina of Aerial Raiders. “I charge for editing.”
That includes low-flying aircraft of less than 10 pounds all the way up to planes as large as commercial airliners that can fly above 60,000 feet.
Pierzina, 40, of Aerial Raiders, said he has used his radio-controlled four-blade helicopter to shoot real-estate photographs, snowboarder video and even a wedding on a remote mesa near Sedona.
The 5-pound aircraft with 14-inch blades can fly on battery power for about six minutes with a camera or 25 minutes without, he said.
The FAA chose six U.S. test sites in December to review UAV technology and develop regulations for their use.
Arizona was not among the sites chosen for testing, but it hopes to remain involved in development of commercial UAV applications.
The FAA is scheduled to set rules for small UAVs this year with a review period to follow before implementation.
The agency claims jurisdiction of the entire U.S. airspace and relies on a 1981 advisory circular regulating model aircraft as the basis for standards for small UAV use.
The circular encourages voluntary compliance and advises model-aircraft fliers to keep their planes below 400 feet and to notify an airport operator if they are flying within 3 miles of the airport.
FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said in a statement that an operator of radio-controlled aircraft can mount a camera on it and shoot video for his or her personal use.
“But if the same person flies the same aircraft and then tries to sell the video, or uses it to promote a business, or accepts payments from someone else to shoot the video, that would be a prohibited commercial operation,” said Gregor, who works out of the FAA’s Pacific Division office.
The FAA is not a prosecutorial agency, but it would send a UAV operator a cease-and-desist letter if it became aware of the unauthorized commercial use of a UAV, he added.
The FAA is in litigation with Raphael Pirker, an aerial photographer who in 2011 shot pictures with a UAV at the University of Virginia.
Pirker, who was assessed a $10,000 fine, is challenging the FAA’s jurisdiction.
UAV users, including real-estate photographers and journalists, are carefully watching the case.
Aerial Raiders and other Valley operators such as Greg Utton of Mesa have websites that advertise their photography services with UAVs.
Another local UAV operator declined to comment on the record because of fears of FAA enforcement.
Utton, 66, said that he thinks there are thousands of UAV photographers around the country and that the FAA cannot police them all.
He started doing real-estate photography three years ago and added the option of aerial images last year.
Flying radio-controlled aircraft has been a hobby since the mid-1970s.
Utton has three radio-controlled helicopters for photographs and a six-blade rotorcraft for video.
The lightweight copters can cost as much as $5,000, Utton said.
He assembles the aircraft and builds the rigging for his cameras, which include a small GoPro unit and a full-size digital camera.
For safety and privacy, Utton said he always keeps the copters in view and restricts flights to over the street and the property he is shooting.
He won’t fly near power lines, in high winds or if a site is too congested with people or cars.
“I’m not flying very high, maybe 100 feet,” he said. “You want to show the front of the house and the landscaping. When you get one of these expensive houses, that’s what you’re selling.”
Utton charges $150 for shooting with his small helicopter and $375 for the large UAV. But that is far less than hiring a full-size aircraft to do aerial photography.
Bruce Haffner, a pilot and TV reporter, said he charges $1,575 per hour to take HD video footage for commercial work in his full-size helicopter.
“We can go to higher altitudes and travel farther,” he said of the helicopter. “But the quadcopter has its place. There is a place for them once the FAA figures it out (on safety issues).”
Utton and others in the UAV industry have complained that the United States is falling behind other nations in using UAVs for commercial use while the FAA is taking years to set its policies.
“Why is it that I can’t do this here because I live in the United States?” said Utton, a Vietnam veteran who was an Army helicopter crew chief.
The federal government has not contacted him about his UAV use for real-estate photography, Utton said.
Real-estate photography is becoming an important part of marketing properties, especially high-end homes, because nine out of 10 buyers start home searches online, said Kevin Crosse of Arizona Imaging.
He started his company in 2001.
Some photographers use truck-mounted booms to get aerial shots, but the height is limited and access can be restricted, as well, he said.
Crosse does not have a UAV but has contracted with an operator for aerial shots. That operator declined to be identified for this story.
Rebecca Grossman, Scottsdale Area Association of Realtors president and CEO, said the association is aware that some of its members offer aerial videos.
“But we were not aware that they are violating FAA rules, and we have not received any complaints in that regard,” she said.
In January 2012, the California Association of Realtors warned its members that use of UAVs for video or photographs of high-end properties “may violate … the FAA policy on unmanned aircraft.”
Lexa Garrett, president of the Saguaro chapter of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said the FAA has established a distinct line between hobbyists and commercial operators of UAVs.
Safety is the agency’s top priority, she said.
“The FAA doesn’t want things falling out of the sky” and landing on a neighbor’s property, said Garrett, a commercial-airline pilot from southern Arizona.