Real Estate

Saturday, May 10 2014 08:59 PM

Homeowner hopes drone videotaping flies 'under the radar'

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    This drone was being used to photograph a home for sale on the Kern River in Bakersfield.

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  2. 2 of 10

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    This drone was used to photograph a house on the Kern River that is for sale.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Tom Morse, a Santa Barbara-based photographer, uses the drone, top, to get aerial photos of the home in the background for real estate sales.

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  4. 4 of 10

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Michael Perry walks through his sisters home that is for sale on the Kern River that his mother designed.

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  5. 5 of 10

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Michael Perry walks through the home that his sister owns that he is helping her sell.

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  6. 6 of 10

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Linda Elias's home for sale on the Kern River.

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  7. 7 of 10

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    The drone was used to get aerial views of this home for sale in Bakersfield.

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  8. 8 of 10

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    A view of the Kern River and the bluffs from inside LInda Elias's home that is for sale.

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  9. 9 of 10

    By Photo courtesy of Michael Perry and Thomas I. Morse

    A property shot with a digital camera from a drone.

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  10. 10 of 10

    By Photo courtesy of Michael Perry and Thomas I. Morse

    A property shot with a digital camera from a drone.

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BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer jcox@bakersfield.com

Linda Elias could always say, if the feds ever ask, that she simply wanted to share the magnificence of her 6,000-square-foot, Frank Lloyd Wright-esque home along the Kern River near Hart Park.

Or, she could just blame her brother, who has already prepared his own story.

But the truth is, she allowed a professional photographer to fly a miniature four-rotor helicopter equipped with a videocamera in and around her home last week for the purpose of marketing the property for sale.

That alone may put her on the wrong side of a Federal Aviation Administration rule forbidding the commercial use of unmanned aircraft systems, also known as drones.

Elias' quandary -- whether to take advantage of promising new technology and thereby risk a federal violation -- highlights growing frustration with the FAA among industries ranging from real estate and agriculture to transportation and aviation.

On Thursday, the same day filming went down at Elias' home on River Grove Street, a nationwide coalition of 33 business associations sent a letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta urging him to use "all available means" to allow limited commercial use of small drones pending new rules expected to be released later this year and take effect in September 2015.

"The time for resolution has come, and we cannot afford any further delays," the letter stated. "The technology is advancing faster than the regulations to govern it."

In the meantime, Elias, her real estate broker, her brother and his friend the photographer think, or rather hope, they're in the clear.

"I was given permission to do it," said Thomas Morse, the Santa Barbara aerial photographer invited to tape the property with his drone, free of charge, by Elias' brother, Michael Perry. "There should be no repercussions at all under any circumstances."

Perry and the broker, Bart Tipton, agreed. They asserted that the videotaping doesn't represent commercial use of a drone because Morse was not paid for the job. Perry also noted that Morse's helicopter only flew over Elias' property, and so it did not violate anyone's privacy.

But it may not be that simple.

SAFETY FIRST

FAA spokesman Les Dorr Jr. said that since 2007, only hobby and recreational unmanned aircraft enthusiasts have been allowed to operate drones in the United States without first applying for permission from the agency. Firefighters, law enforcement and first responders are also authorized to operate domestic unmanned aircraft under a law enacted in 2012.

The only company that has secured a federal permit to operate a drone for commercial purposes, he noted, was ConocoPhillips, which last fall used a 40-pound unmanned helicopter to survey a remote area in the arctic.

Dorr emphasized that safety is the agency's primary concern regarding drone use.

"Think of the magnitude of what we're trying to do," he said. "We are writing regulations for a very dynamic industry where some new use or new technology seems to pop up almost every week. And it is the FAA's responsibility to ensure the safety of the (manned) airplanes and the other people on the ground, while at the same time not imposing an undue regulatory burden on a new industry."

Some private groups are apparently willing to be patient while the FAA drafts the new rules. For instance, the California Association of Realtors says it is urging its members to hold off on the use of drones to market homes.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an 8,000-member nonprofit based in Virginia, also discourages unauthorized commercial use of the technology. That's partly because one accident could ruin it for everyone, said the group's senior government relations manager, Mario Mairena.

While the FAA has issued several cease-and-desist letters to commercial users of unmanned aircraft, Mairena said he is unaware of anyone connected to the real estate industry getting into trouble for unauthorized commercial flights.

That said, it's hard to tell how likely it is that anyone would be punished for bringing in someone to videotape their home, Mairena added.

"Obviously there's a lot of folks that are doing it illegally, and we can't support that," he said.

'A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE'

Morse, the Santa Barbara videographer who has worked in aerial photography since the 1960s using full-size helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, said he only recently started using drones.

He said his drone allows him to shoot panoramas and close-ups in a kind of slow motion.

"We try to show a different perspective than they would get from any other different photography," he said.

It's unclear whether drones have been used previously to market local homes, said Linda Jay, executive director of the Bakersfield Association of Realtors. But a quick survey of her members indicated many are aware of the discussions taking place at the national level, she said.

Elias isn't sure what to make of the FAA's ban on commercial use of drones.

It's been about a year since she moved out of the River Grove Street home her parents designed, and now she lives near her children and grandchildren in Redmond, Wash.

She certainly doesn't want to get in trouble for the video, but said she doesn't mind the publicity it might generate. Her asking price for the 3-acre property is $750,000.

To her, uncertainties regarding the FAA rules suggest drones' legal status may be up in the air.

"The ruling has not come out yet, so we might fly under the radar with the helicopter," she said with a laugh.

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