Drones — also known as “unmanned aerial vehicles ” — are everywhere. Our military uses them in warfare, archeologists scan ancient Peruvian ruins to avoid damage, and others survey hydroelectric dams. One even illegally landed early Monday on the White House lawn.
Currently, commercial use for drones — including real estate marketing — is prohibited unless an exception is issued by the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA); recreational or hobby use is allowed under certain conditions, the most notable of which is that the craft must be flown within visual line sights of the operator and not more than 400 feet above ground.
The FAA has oversight responsibility, and estimates that by 2020, more than 30,000 small drones will be used for all types of business purposes — including one proposed by Amazon chief executive (and Washington Post owner) Jeff Bezos for same-day package delivery to its customers.
Law firms, anticipating lots of legal questions and lawsuits based on drone use, are even setting up “drone practice”groups so as to get a head start when the FAA issues its final authorizations.
Is there a role for drones in community associations?
“Associations should consider this new drone technology to take advantage of its many beneficial applications, such as providing images depicting conditions of roofs and common ground,” said Marvin Nodiff, a Wisconsin condominium attorney and author of “The Dark Condos.” “Further, associations should protect against potential impacts as drones become more popular for commercial and other uses.”
Nodiff’s book is a fictional tale that takes the reader on an entertaining, smart and even quirky ride from misguided condo boards to the joys of community living. In the book, the board uses a surveillance drone to search covenant violations, but accidentally invades the privacy of one of the owners.
There are three types of drones: Public, civil and model aircraft. Common public uses today include law enforcement, firefighting, border patrol and search and rescue. The FAA has an online process for applicants to make their requestS.
The FAA is currently working on implementing procedures which, according to a recent press release, “will allow for commercial operations in low-risk, controlled environments.”
How will this affect community associations?
It is actually mind-boggling to speculate on everything that a drone can do in a community association. First, security. A low-flying drone with a camera can spot trespassers and the information automatically relayed to the police.
Inspection of buildings, especially high-rise condos in congested urban areas. Often the condo board needs to know the condition of the roof, for example, which requires expensive ladders or scaffolding to access. The drone can inspect with the camera quickly and much less expensively.
While Nodiff’s fictional board president was a little too aggressive when it aimed the drone’s camera into a window in a private house, careful use of the drone would allow complete inspections of the entire community. Especially in large communities, the cost saving could be considerable.
And if you are planning to buy or sell any property, real estate agents are anxious to have the right to use drones to market their products. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) recently cautioned its members “that the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for real estate marketing is currently prohibited by the Federal Aviation Administration. Such prohibited use of unmanned aerial vehicles may lead to the assessment of substantial fines and penalties.”
But NAR made it clear that it “supports efforts to create new federal regulations to allow for the future commercial use [of drones] by the real estate industry.” And the FAA is listening. Early this month, it granted the first regulatory exemption for real estate photography.
According to an FAA press release, a Tucson, Ariz., company is now authorized to fly a drone “to enhance academic community awareness and augment real estate listing videos.”
The company must, however, obtain a certificate or waiver that ensures the safety of the airspace for the proposed use.
The FAA has received 214 requests for exemptions and to date has only granted 14. In the meantime, however, the FAA is carefully monitoring and enforcing the illegal use of these aircraft.
Recently, after initially fining Raphael Pirker $10,000 for operating his drone in a reckless manner on the University of Virginia campus back in 2011, the FAA reached a settlement requiring Pirker to pay $1,100. According to reports, he allegedly flew the drone — which weighed less than 5 pounds — at “extremely low altitudes” including under a pedestrian bridge.
Benny L. Kass is a Washington and Maryland lawyer. This column is not legal advice and should not be acted upon without obtaining legal counsel. For a free copy of the booklet “A Guide to Settlement on Your New Home,” send a self-addressed stamped envelope to Benny L. Kass, 1050 17th St. NW, Suite 1100, Washington, D.C. 20036.