Santa Fe real estate agent takes to using DJI Phantom UAS

Santa Fe, New Mexico homeowner Hal Wingo, left, watches as Brian Tercero, of Keller Williams Realty flies his DJI Phantom drone as he takes video of the garden on April 18, 2014, in Santa Fe, N.M. Photo: Clyde Mueller, AP

A luxury home for sale just off Old Taos Highway on Santa Fe’s north side has its own website. Buyers, especially those who might be a continent away, can peruse dozens of high-quality photographs of the 3,900-square-foot main house and 1,300-square-foot guesthouse and take a video tour of the 1.2-acre property. There’s also an aerial image from Google.

But the website now includes high-definition video recorded by a camera mounted on a remote-controlled unmanned aircraft — commonly known as a drone. The video gives potential buyers a bird’s-eye view of the property, which is on the market for $1.3 million.

Using drones to sell high-end houses is the latest trend in the real estate industry. Agents across the country are adopting the newest technology to differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack.

Homeowner Hal Wingo, former senior editor of Life magazine and co-founder of People, hopes the drone photography will attract a buyer. He and his wife, Paula, are decamping to warmer climes after more than eight years in Santa Fe.

Wingo said when his agent, Brian Tercero of Keller Williams Realty, broached the drone idea, “The more I thought about it, the more I thought, ‘He’s on the edge of something here.’ ”

But what may seem like a smart and imaginative new way to sell houses is actually fraught with complications. Because low-flying drones can pick up tiny details, such as the facial expressions of people on the ground, many people are worried that they’re an invasion of personal privacy.

And the Federal Aviation Administration, citing safety concerns, forbids using drones for these kinds of commercial purposes without special agency authorization, though a federal administrative judge ruled in March that such drones don’t fall under the FAA’s purview.

On a recent day, Tercero fired up his DJI Phantom in Wingo’s driveway. The device, about 18 inches in diameter, has four propellers and a GoPro Hero 3 camera mounted on the underside. It lifts into the air like a helicopter.

Tercero used the device to take video of the long driveway on Wingo’s property, views from the house’s observation deck — it looks out over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains — and the 32-panel solar array on the roof, which is not visible from the front of the house. He used two sticks to manipulate the device, one to move it up and down and the other to move it from side to side. From the ground, he followed the drone on a monitor attached to the controls as the onboard camera took in welcoming scenes of the home’s multiple outdoor seating and eating areas, including one with a fireplace.

“This just makes so much sense for out-of-state and out-of-country clients,” Tercero said. “Consumers are going to start demanding this. Buyers searching for homes are looking for a better experience in home shopping.”

Looking at the small, insect-like device as it prepared to take off, Wingo said he could not imagine why the FAA would want to “exercise control over something like this.”

FAA mulls drones

Drones themselves have been around for a while. Until recently, they’ve been mostly known for military uses. But they’re being adopted now for a wide range of commercial purposes. In addition to real estate sales, drones are useful in firefighting, search-and-rescue operations, disaster relief, weather monitoring, hurricane tracking, crime scene documentation, crop dusting, water leak detection and research of environmental disasters such as the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“We would’ve loved to be able to have flown unmanned aerial systems in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina,” said a man with Mississippi State University in a recent FAA online conference call.

Some people are even looking forward to the possibility that in the future, Amazon will deliver orders to customers’ doorsteps via drones.

According to the FAA, which is responsible for the safety of U.S. airspace from the ground up, drones, or unmanned aircraft systems, fall under its purview.

In 2007, the FAA published a notice in the Federal Register reminding drone pilots that they may not use drones for commercial purposes, such as home sales, by claiming they are operating a model aircraft. (Under FAA guidelines, model aircraft can be flown without authorization below 400 feet and at least three miles from an airport and away from populated areas.) Commercial operators are only authorized on a case-by-case basis, the notice said.

Some pilots have subsequently gotten into trouble with the FAA and local authorities. In 2012, the Los Angeles Police Department warned real estate agents not to hire a photographer who was helping to sell luxury properties using a drone to shoot aerial video.

And last year, the FAA in Minneapolis told two people photographing homes for real estate brokers to ground their commercial operations.

In March, however, an administrative judge with the National Transportation Safety Board dismissed a proposed $10,000 fine against a businessman who used a remotely operated, 55-inch foam glider to take aerial photos for a University of Virginia Medical Center ad. The FAA had claimed the man violated regulations requiring commercial operators of drones to obtain agency authorization. The judge said the drone in that case was not an aircraft as defined by FAA regulations and therefore was not subject to federal aviation regulations. The FAA is appealing the decision.

In the meantime, the agency is developing new regulations covering drones. In the FAA’s 2012 reauthorization legislation, Congress ordered it to come up with a plan for “safe integration” of unmanned aircraft systems by Sept. 30, 2015. The agency is currently preparing regulations for small drones (under 55 pounds), and they are likely to include provisions for commercial operators.

On Dec. 30, the agency announced it had selected six drone test-site operations to research the new technology.

Tercero said he believes that as a real estate agent, he can fly his own drone without breaking any laws, “so long as the owners give the OK.”

Tercero, who made news last year for his involvement in a $4 million home sale — the biggest residential sale of the year in Santa Fe, has been researching drones for a year. He’s apparently the first agent in Santa Fe to take the plunge and buy one.

The device and accessories cost him about $3,000 and he has already flown it to help show off some raw land in Northern New Mexico. He plans to use it primarily to market his high-end listings.

“People want to see the reality when they are searching for real estate,” he said. “It gives them a good perspective on how the house is situated.”

An invasion of privacy?

Safety is not the only concern associated with drone use. Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and many private citizens warn that drones could represent a whole new invasion of privacy rights.

Defenders of the growing industry point out that many Americans are used to video surveillance and already accept certain intrusions. People are routinely caught on cameras in public buildings, at traffic intersections or on police car dashboard cameras. And the pervasiveness of cellphones, Facebook and Google (where people are often surprised to find images of their own homes), makes it seem that people have given up expectations of privacy in many situations.

But Peter Simonson, director of the ACLU in New Mexico, said the rapidly developing drone technology is a “growing concern” for privacy advocates, especially when the aircraft are used by government agencies. He said his office has raised questions about drone use by the Border Patrol in New Mexico and said he was consulted about the possibility of the Albuquerque Police Department adopting the devices.

Government use of drones raises concerns under the Fourth Amendment (the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure), but Simonson warned that when they are used by private entities, the public doesn’t have the same protections against unwarranted invasion of privacy. At the most, he said, a private citizen might have resources under the Tort Claims Act.

“A drone that hovers over a municipal area with an extremely high-resolution camera captures video of everything that transpires over a long period of time,” he said. “That kind of data can discern people’s movements, what meetings they’re attending, who is important in their life and why,” he said, adding that drones could be used to spy on a public official having an affair or making a purchase he or she wouldn’t want the public to know about.

A year ago, the FAA held a “listening session” on this topic, during which Michael Covari, an analyst with the Rutherford Institute in Charlottesville, Va., warned that drones “will usher in a new age of surveillance in our society. No person, whether he is at a political rally, exiting a house of worship or simply walking around downtown will be safe from the prying eyes of these devices.”

Model legislation drafted by the institute, he said, bans drones from carrying lethal or nonlethal anti-personnel devices, such as tear gas, Tasers or even machine guns.

Amy Saponovich of the Electronic Privacy Institute warned, “We’ve had aerial surveillance for a very long time, but drones bring a new capacity for surveillance simply because they’re cheaper and easier to operate than traditional measures.”

A lucrative investment

Privacy concerns probably won’t stall the drone industry forever. In its last estimate, the FAA said as many as 7,500 small commercial unmanned aircraft systems may be in use by 2018. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International is predicting that their popularity will help create 70,000 new jobs and generate $13.5 billion in revenues in the first three years after the FAA integration of drones into the national air space.

In March, two major U.S. law firms announced they were starting drone practice groups.

And industry giants are getting into the business. Earlier this month, Google acquired a Moriarty-based startup called Titan Aerospace that makes solar-powered drones.

Drones designed for the personal and commercial market range in price from several hundred dollars to thousands and weigh as little as a few pounds.

Tercero recently used his done to shoot video of a ranch north of Ojo Caliente. The footage was good enough to hook a buyer. The property, which had been on the market for a long time, is now under contract.

The deal, Tercero said, is a perfect example of the value of drones. Standard marketing photographs of trees and rocks don’t begin to convey what the 800-acre property looks like.

“Flying over [the property] adds a whole other dimension,” he said. “It’s powerful. And it was instrumental in getting the buyer to bite.”

That said, there are technical challenges. Editing the video is time-consuming and required Tercero to learn new skills. For the moment, he and his business partner are doing the work themselves, although they might hire professional photographers or editors sometime down the road.

Maneuvering the device also takes some practice.

“It’s tricky,” Tercero admitted. On his second flight, he crashed the drone into a juniper tree. But he’s getting better, he said, joking, “And my mom told me my video-playing skills would never pay off.”

Tercero, who obtained his real estate license in 2010, tries to keep his pulse on market trends.

“When I hear what other real estate agents are doing for clients, especially at the high end, of course I want to bring that to Santa Fe. It helps my clients’ properties stand out. And it helps me differentiate myself from other agents,” he said.

As for nervous neighbors, he said, “I would really encourage Realtors to really consider the neighbors so nobody gets panicked.”

In the case of the home off Old Taos Highway, homeowner Hal Wingo said, “We’re not going to home in on any other property. If someone felt you were looking down on their house, they might not like that.”

Wingo said his home has been on the market for about six months. Not even a newspaper ad — which he paid for himself — was enough to draw a buyer. Now he’s hoping he’ll find one with the help of a drone.

Source: Santa Fe, New Mexico

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