Operators of drones, a popular tool for both residential and commercial real estate construction and sales, will soon have to follow some new rules.

Real estate has long been the go-to investment for those looking to build long-term wealth for generations. Let us help you navigate this asset class by signing up for our comprehensive real estate investing guide.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) just announced that as of March 16 it will allow unmanned aircraft (UA) operators to fly over people and at night under certain conditions while also imposing new remote identification (Remote ID) requirements.

Real estate professionals are among the growing cohort of drone users, a cohort the FAA calls the fastest-growing segment in the transportation sector — with currently more than 1.7 million drone registrations and 203,000 FAA-certificated remote pilots since issuing its first commercial drone permit in 2006.

Still have to pass the test but can do aerial shooting from more places

Jonathan de Araujo with the Vantage Point Real Estate Team in Lexington, Massachusetts, says he’s an early adopter of drone use for real estate, adding one immediate impact is that agents who own older drones will need to purchase remote ID transponders to get their drones into compliance. He adds, “They’ll still have to pass the FAA drone operator test, which I can say from experience, is not an easy test.”

The biggest impact for agents in the new rules may be that ability to fly drones over roads with moving vehicles on them, says Greg Reverdiau, cofounder and lead instructor for the Pilot Institute in Prescott, Arizona, which Reverdiau says has so far trained 55,000 pilots of manned and unmanned aircraft in 98 countries. He explains:

This can help them get much better footage of the house, especially if it is surrounded by busy roads. They can also fly over people, although this may be less useful. The privilege to fly over vehicles and people will depend on the size and category of the drone, but it can start happening as soon as March.

He also says that the recurrent exam will go away in March, explaining: “Drone pilots were required to retest every two years at a cost of $160. The FAA will provide free training instead that can be completed online for the recurrent portion only.”

For some light reading, here’s the link to the 470-page Remote ID rule and to the Operation of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Over People rule, which comes in at a relatively svelte 292 pages.

A bit more detail about transponders

Transponders transmit a drone’s location, identity, and altitude. The FAA says the Remote ID rule applies to all operators of drones that require FAA registration and lists three ways to comply:

  1. Operate a standard Remote ID drone that broadcasts identification and location information of the drone and control station;
  2. Operate a drone with a Remote ID broadcast module (may be a separate device attached to the drone), which broadcasts identification, location, and take-off information; or
  3. Operate a drone without Remote ID but at specific FAA-recognized identification areas.

Meanwhile, the rules for operating drones over people are listed in the four-page executive summary of that document.

You don’t have to fly alone, but again: that digital license plate

You don’t have to go it alone. There are companies that specialize in recommending, training, and flying drones for real estate and other clients, such as Dronegenuity in Hudson, Massachusetts.

Here’s how that company’s founder and CEO, Dan Edmondson, explains the changes:

Starting in March 2021, commercial drone pilots who have already passed their initial knowledge test no longer need to take an in-person recurrent exam at a testing center. That means that if you’re operating a drone in support of your real estate work, it just became easier to keep your Part 107 license active. The second change coming in March 2021 allows drone pilots to fly at night without a waiver, which is a huge (and exciting) change for those of us operating in the drone industry. This could enable real estate professionals to capture property shots both during the day, and at night, which with the right pilot and camera, can yield a really beautiful photo. That being said, you’ll still need to affix anti-collision lights to your drone that can be seen from three statute miles away.

Then beginning in 2023, rules go into effect for remote ID, which, Edmondson says, “you can think of as a digital license plate.” He adds:

This impacts everyone in the drone industry equally and is just another step towards a sustainable BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) infrastructure. The second rule allows for operations over people with certain caveats, depending on the size of your drone. That being said, since real estate professionals are mostly flying over buildings, this isn’t as much of a concern unless you are photographing a property in a dense urban area.

de Araujo, the Massachusetts real estate agent and drone operator, advises potential pilots to get into compliance ASAP by getting their licenses and remote ID transponders, adding: “The FAA is very serious about drone safety, and they will likely be looking to set examples by fining commercial pilots that are not in compliance. Don’t let them make an example out of you.”

That harm might not stop there. “Depending on your state rules, a violation of FAA rules could potentially put your real estate license at risk,” de Araujo points out, “so proceed with caution.”