NOTE TO READERS: The use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), popularly known as drones, is making headlines and has captured the attention of many, especially in the real estate field. Last month, the FAA moved one step closer to developing standards to govern the use of small UAS in the private sector. For this brief, EDR Insight was extremely fortunate to have the expertise of Steve Kasten, VP Surveying & Photogrammetry at Surdex, a top ten provider of GIS mapping, digital orthophotography, and geospatial services. Surdex develops mapping solutions and data management for economic and industrial development, land use, planning, emergency response systems, resource management, tax assessment, and health and human services. Kasten shared his response to the draft FAA rules and his thoughts on where this exciting technology could take the world of real estate property assessments.
The FAA Floats Long-Awaited Draft Rules
Moves one step closer to freeing up the skies to commercial drones
An alcohol-fueled joyride onto the White House lawn by a drone in January preceded the mid-February release of the FAA’s long-awaited proposed rules for the commercial use of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). The incident on Pennsylvania Avenue highlights that there are still many legal issues to resolve as interest in drones climbs. The draft regulations are an important step toward defining what the government feels are appropriate rules that will allow the safe integration of commercial UAS into the National Airspace System. Currently, UAS flights are allowed only by nonprofit ventures for research and educational purposes and a very select group of commercial entities, primarily film companies. Their potential in the commercial property sector is not insignificant—and already has the notice of a growing number of firms involved in property assessments and site inspections.
“Technology is advancing at an unprecedented pace and this milestone allows federal regulations and the use of our national airspace to evolve to safely accommodate innovation.”
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx
What Is the FAA Proposing?
Steve Kasten at Surdex is optimistic about what the FAA’s proposal could mean for flights of small UAS under 55 pounds. “In my opinion, these rules are moving in a direction that is positive for the UAS industry.”
The FAA’s Notice of Public Rulemaking: Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems covers a lot of ground, addressing issues like operator certification and flying limitations. Among the major provisions of Proposed Part 107 are:
- Class G airspace would be open to a UAS operator that passed an FAA knowledge test and obtained an unmanned aircraft operation certificate after passing a TBD FAA pilot’s exam.
- No general aviation license would be needed.
- Flights allowed during daylight hours only.
- UAS must be flown within visual line of site of the operator and under 500 feet.
- UAS may not operate over any persons not directly involved in the operation.
Operation in class B, C, D and E airspace is allowed only with approval of air traffic control.
“Up until these proposed 107 rules, the FAA has been unwilling to segregate the airspace. They wanted one set of rules to cover everything from a two-ounce UAS flying at 100 feet to the 22,900 pound Global Hawk flying at 65,000 feet in the NAS. That makes no sense and is the primary cause of the slow progress with UAS use in the U.S.,” says Kasten. “The idea of letting micro UAS (i.e., up to 4.4 pounds) operate with trained technicians, in line of site, under 400 feet and with liability insurance would be a safe starting point. It would also allow for the refinement of additional rules and guidelines for larger systems.”
By law, the FAA is charged with ensuring the safe and efficient use of U.S. airspace, but there are also issues of privacy surfacing as the rule takes shape. “The privacy issue is a strange one to me,” Kasten observed. “At Surdex, we’ve been operating manned aerial photography aircraft for more than 60 years in the U.S. The courts have ruled on this issue before and stated that it was not a privacy issue. So now when we simply change the airplane acquiring the imagery to a UAS, it is somehow a privacy issue. I believe that many of the political people involved in this debate are uninformed. I was at a UAS meeting at a university in Missouri, and a UAS staff member of a U.S. Congressman had no idea that aerial photography existed and was a business within the U.S.”
The Future of Drones and Property Investigations Taking Flight
The new regulations, once finalized, could open up opportunities for UAS use in myriad applications, including wildlife conservation efforts, search and rescue, movie-making and real estate. In general, the real estate commercial sector has responded positively to the February proposal to allow drones for commercial purposes, such as marketing and selling properties. As for where the rules might take aerial photography and property inspection applications, Kasten had this to say:
“I believe we will continue to see a rapid increase in UAS use related to aerial photography and commercial real estate. The simple ability to provide an aerial view of a property with an inexpensive UAS at a very high resolution will become an extremely desirable item not only to display a property for sale, but also to provide for detailed review and inspection. We will also see the ability to make precise measurements from the UAS imagery and collect multispectral imagery for environmental analysis.”
One of the factors tied to the potential of drone use is an economic one. They are generally inexpensive. As with many other types of technologies, issues like battery life and image quality have improved dramatically and will continue to do so. One unknown right now is the impact the FAA rules and ASTM standards (see FOR MORE INFORMATION at end of article) might have on these systems. “The success of the UAS system is the inexpensive and creative ability to fly and acquire imagery and data,” says Kasten.
In addition to aerial photographs of real estate parcels, drones have the potential to reshape how environmental site assessments are conducted. Environmental professionals conduct Phase I ESAs every day on large parcels or sites with areas that are inaccessible by foot. Technological improvements have progressed to the point where for a modest investment and some training, a client now has the ability to view a property in a way that was not possible just a few years ago. While there is no replacement for having a trained professional walk a property on a site visit, drones can substantially augment and improve a site visit, especially on large properties. Some property assessment firms have already invested in fleets of drones and already have trained drone pilots on staff—all in advance of FAA regulations. And, in turn, some have clients asking about the possibility of offering visuals from property flyovers so interest is already taking shape.
Kasten predicts that the technology could eventually redefine what a site visit looks like. “We think of simple static color images today, but we can also provide precise 3-D measurements, and 3-D models of a site. On the sensor image side, we can provide color infrared images and multi-spectral images. With these types of images, we can potentially perform environmental analysis of the site from aerial images,” he says. “Future products will include video, mosaics and 3-D models of the site that will allow walk-through and fly-through of the property from any computer or remote device.”
All Cleared for Takeoff?
Drones are already widely used in other developed countries that do not have the legal barriers that currently exist in the U.S. As Google works on drone-delivery, the company’s star power could help move the issue forward. So too could Amazon, with its hopes to launch Prime Air, which would use drones to deliver packages in less than 30 minutes after an order is placed. It is worth noting that these regulations would expressly prohibit non- line-of-sight operations such as those proposed by Amazon.com for package delivery services. However, the FAA indicated that they remained committed to furthering the technologies needed for such operations. These technologies are currently being investigated at the six FAA UAS testing sites, located around the country, as well as at the upcoming UAS Center of Excellence. A small but growing number of colleges and universities, including Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, are offering degree programs in, yes, drones.
As for next steps for the FAA proposal, Congress mandated the agency to draft regulations for commercial UAS flights by the end of this year when it passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act in 2012. The draft regulations are now open to a 60-day public comment period and the FAA is anticipating a large number of comments in response to this NPRM. Final implementation of these regulations is not expected until at least 2016.
As the FAA rules take shape and the public weighs in, environmental firms would be wise to keep abreast of how drones may change standard practice. In any industry, firms that adopt new technologies are more successful, and drones have enormous potential as an added tool for conducting site investigations. Admittedly, it is early. “We have only just begun to see what will develop in terms of this new technology,” says Kasten. “Some of the new autonomous avoidance capabilities are amazing and will continue to improve the safety of systems.” (Note: Autonomous avoidance is a set of sensors on the UAS that image or sense with lasers or sonar the surrounding objects around the UAS during flight. These devices feed complex flight software that sense an obstruction to the UAS flight plan and make corrections to avoid the object. This happens in real-time to allow the UAS to sense potential obstructions to flight and avoid an accident. This is good news for the FAA, as safety is paramount to its considerations.)
If all goes well, drones may soon be flying the friendly skies for site visits, among other uses. Asked if he views any limitations on UAS use, Kasten was optimistic: “I’m not sure there are any. The systems we fly today are autonomous in nature. The flight plan is uploaded to the aircraft and it flies from launch to landing without our input. That is what makes it work so well. This may not work in all flight situations, but the autonomous nature is ideal for mapping.” New drone technologies can help property due diligence professionals evaluate properties in ways that were cost-prohibitive in the past, and the ability to view a property, especially a large one, from the air is already emerging as an added value to provide to clients.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
ASTM AND UAS STANDARDS:
The ASTM, according to Kasten, “seems to be taking the same path as the FAA. They are addressing the UAS industry just like they would a manned aircraft. They are focused on regulations and standards that look like manned aircraft rules for systems that are much different.”
- ASTM F2908, 2014 Edition, Standard Specification for Aircraft Flight Manual (AFM) for a Small Unmanned Aircraft System (sUAS)
- ASTM F2909, 2014 Edition, Standard Practice for Maintenance and Continued Airworthiness of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS)
- ASTM F2910, 2014 Edition, Standard Specification for Design and Construction of a Small Unmanned Aircraft System (sUAS)
- ASTM F2911, 2014 Edition, Standard Practice for Design and Production/Building of Multiple Copies of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS)
- ASTM F3002, 2014 Edition, Standard Specification for Design of the Command and Control System for Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS)
- ASTM F3003, 2014 Edition, Standard Specification for Quality Assurance of a Small Unmanned Aircraft System (sUAS)
- ASTM F3005, 2014 Edition, Standard Specification for Batteries for Use in Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS)
THE FAA PROPOSAL:
To submit public comments, visit the Federal eRulemaking Portal and enter docket # FAA-2015-0150.
For more on Surdex, visit their website.
EDR Insight wishes to thank Steve Kasten at Surdex for his valuable contributions to this brief.