Lofty potential for drones in real estate, other businesses

BOTHELL — Toby Barnett set the small, white, four-rotor drone down on the driveway, stepped back and powered it up. The drone zoomed up above the two-story Bothell home, buzzing like a cloud of angry hornets.

The drone swept around the home, shooting video that Barnett will use in listing it for sale. Then he brought the craft in low, threading it between a trellis and up to the home’s front door.

Aerial video “just has that wow factor,” said the Marysville-based real estate agent — and self-described tech geek.

And it can be done quickly and cheaply with a drone — or unmanned aerial system (UAS), as they are called by the aerospace industry.

Real estate photography is just one of myriad potential commercial uses for drones. The commercial and civil UAS markets could be worth about $8 billion a year over the next decade, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

However, growth in those markets has been hampered by lack of regulations. Commercial uses have been banned altogether while the Federal Aviation Administration works on how to integrate drones that weigh less than 55 pounds into the national airspace.

The FAA is well into the process but won’t say when it plans to have a proposed rule finished.

In the meantime, the agency is granting case-by-case exemptions. The FAA granted its first exemption for use in real estate to an agent in Arizona in early January.

Barnett applied for one earlier this month but doesn’t expect to hear back for several months. Since October, he has used a drone to film seven homes as test cases for the safe-operating procedures and maintenance program that he outlined in his FAA application.

Last week, the FAA granted two more exemptions, both for aerial photography and cinematography. So far, the agency has approved 16 exemptions out of nearly 300 applications nationwide.

Drones are great for shooting real estate, especially large properties and homes with desirable views, Barnett said.

“For your average residential property, it’s probably not a game-changer,” he said. But it could be for developers building and selling large, planned communities.

Agriculture will be the biggest commercial market driver, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, which is based in Arlington, Virginia.

Farming uses include monitoring plant health and growth. Detecting disease and pest outbreaks enables farmers to more efficiently and selectively spray pesticides and other treatments, according to the association’s 2013 economic report.

Other potential uses include mail and package delivery, news coverage and scientific research.

Public safety is another big potential use, such as monitoring wildfires or finding lost hikers.

However, substantial technological and regulatory hurdles have to be cleared.

What kind of training do drone operators have to have?

What about people’s expectations for privacy?

How can drones be used safely in crowded airspaces, such as around Paine Field or Seattle-Tacoma International Airport?

The drone that crash-landed this week on the White House lawn underscores how complicated a task the FAA faces.

Safety, of course, is a top concern. The FAA received 193 reports of drones entering restricted airspace or having close calls with airplanes in a nine-month period last year — the most recent data available.

Two of the close calls were reported by pilots flying near Paine Field.

The airport’s administration was not aware of the reports, said Bill Dolan, Paine Field’s deputy director.

“It doesn’t take a lot of damage in the right place to bring an airplane down,” he said.

Bird strikes, for example, led to the now famous “Miracle on the Hudson” in 2009, when US Airways Flight 1549 safely landed shortly after losing power in both engines. It had flown through a flock of Canada geese after departing New York’s LaGuardia International Airport.

“The assumption is that the average kid who gets one for Christmas doesn’t have a lot of training with it,” Dolan said.

For now, small drones used recreationally are regarded as “model” aircraft and must stay below 400 feet above ground level and not fly within three miles of airports.

On Thursday, the FAA issued a press release reminding users that Sunday’s Super Bowl is a “no drone zone.”

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole.

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