FAA Finalizes Rule for Commercial Drones

Using a drone to capture listing photos and videos or inspect properties is about to become significantly easier now that the federal government has finalized its long-awaited regulations over the commercial use of unmanned aerial systems.

The final rule issued Tuesday by the Federal Aviation Administration paves the way for people who obtain a remote pilot certificate to operate drones that weigh less than 55 pounds, as long as the aircraft remains within visual line-of-sight. Earning the certificate will involve passing a test of aeronautical knowledge at an FAA-approved testing center — but it will not require applicants to have formal flight training.

The FAA has, until now, required people wishing to operate drones commercially to obtain a so-called Section 333 waiver, and the agency has limited those waivers to people with a pilot’s license. That constraint has stood in the way of real estate professionals and others wishing to use drones in their businesses, despite the growing availability and decreasing cost of lightweight, remote-controlled aircraft equipped with cameras.

The new FAA regulations, which take effect in August, follow requests from industry groups, including the National Association of REALTORS®, for regulators to develop a framework that would allow people without specialized training to use drones for purposes other than a hobby. NAR sent multiple letters to the FAA during the rulemaking process and testified before Congress in support of the use of drones in the real estate industry.

“We’ve worked hard to strike a responsible balance that protects the safety and privacy of individuals, while also ensuring real estate professionals can put drones to good use,” NAR President Tom Salomone said in a statement. “That effort just took another big step forward. The rules will help more real estate professionals take flight, making the efficiency and innovation that drones have to offer available to a much broader base of operators.”

Although the new regulations eliminate the requirement that drone operators hold a pilot’s license, they contain a host of restrictions intended to protect people on the ground. Beyond requiring the operator or another visual observer to be able to see their drone while it is in operation, the regulations prohibit flying inside buildings or flying over people who are not connected with the flight. In addition, drone flights will be permitted only during daylight or twilight hours, drones must not fly faster than 100 miles per hour, and operators must be at least 16 years old.

The regulations will permit drone operators to obtain waivers from the FAA for some of the restrictions if they are able to demonstrate that their proposed flight will still be able to operate safely.

Meanwhile, NAR is calling for the FAA to develop less-restrictive rules for drones under four pounds. NAR also believes the FAA should come up with guidelines that would permit drone flights to go beyond visual line-of-sight, which is particularly important for aerial photography of large buildings or expansive tracts of land.

“We’re entering a new stage of drone use in real estate, and no doubt there will be additional questions and challenges ahead,” Salomone said. “NAR will continue educating its members on issues important to the safe, responsible use of drones so they can grow their business and better serve their clients.”

—By Sam Silverstein, REALTOR® Magazine