The Sky’s the Limit: Possibilities and Pitfalls of Drone Use in Real Estate

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Though drones have become more and more ubiquitous in hobbyist circles over the past decade, interest in the small, unmanned aircraft has only recently begun to spread into the commercial realm. Recent news reports speculating as to the future use of drones by leading retailers, such as Amazon and Walmart, have served to increase public curiosity regarding the future of these machines in the commercial sector. Although recent media interest revolves largely around the potential for drone delivery by large retailers, drone use could be integrated into many other aspects of real estate as well, with possible applications in marketing, surveying, property management and construction, among other areas. Despite the increasing affordability and availability of drones, however, property owners, business owners and other real estate professionals should be aware of the potential complications and limitations that may arise in incorporating drone use into any business model.

Photography and Surveying

One of the most obvious applications of drone use in the real estate market is the use of drones for aerial photography and surveying. Drone photography allows for more expansive views of a property than can be captured from the ground and at much more palatable costs than prior aerial photography, most commonly obtained by airplane or helicopter. Realtors, brokers and others involved in the marketing of properties, both commercial and residential, are also exploring the use of drones to provide virtual tours of properties to entice potential buyers, especially those who may be unable to physically visit multiple properties in a short time frame. Similarly, with drone use, surveyors are able to inspect and assess large multi-acre tracts of land more efficiently and economically than has previously been possible, resulting in cost and time savings for potential land purchasers, including real estate developers and others in the market for expansive tracts of land. In many cases, the measurements provided by drone data are also more precise than those collected by humans in the field, which leading to more accuracy in survey standards.

Site Management and Logistics

Another possible function, which is perhaps less often discussed, is the use of drones in the management and operations of properties and in large construction projects. Apartment and other community managers could employ drones to assist with surveillance and security, to supervise employee productivity in remote areas, and to monitor potential maintenance issues in hard-to-reach areas, such as rooftops and gutters. Drones could also be used in large construction projects, assisting with measurements, logistics and inspection. Some construction firms, such as Sachse Construction, are already employing drones to provide photos and time-lapse videos of large projects and to assist with the identification of logistical issues as such projects develop. 

Delivery

Perhaps the most widely reported aspect of drone use, as it applies to real estate, is the potential use of drones by various retailers and other delivery services. Such services could potentially allow for much quicker, same-day delivery of merchandise, groceries, and other consumer goods, and several companies have already begun using, or at least testing, drones in this capacity. 7-Eleven began testing drone deliveries in Nevada in 2016, for customers living within a one-mile radius of a particular convenience store location. Google and certain of its partners have also experimented with drone delivery of food and merchandise to individual consumers. Drones could also assist with the delivery of medicines from pharmacies, with special benefit to individuals with mobility issues or physical handicaps. Pharmaceutical drone delivery also has the advantage of more perceived privacy for those who are in need of medications that they would prefer to remain discreet. Attractive to retailers largely due to potential cost savings and a decrease in manpower needs, drone delivery could also conceivably have the added benefit of reducing carbon emissions and alleviating some ground traffic in densely populated areas.

Pitfalls

Despite their numerous benefits and potential applications, drones also present a wide array of possible problems for property and business owners in the future. Perhaps the most complicated of these is the issue of air rights. Currently, the law on air rights as it relates to real property hinges on a somewhat outdated Supreme Court case, United States v. Causby. Decided in 1946, Causby held that the owner of real property is also the owner of the airspace above said property, to the extent that such airspace can be reasonably used in connection with the land. Though this case has long remained the authority on the issue, the potential explosion of drone use in commercial real estate and other sectors raises many additional questions that the courts have yet to answer. In the coming years, as drone use becomes more prevalent, courts and legislators will have to determine (i) whether the flying of drones over private property constitutes a trespass or a violation of the owner’s right to quiet enjoyment, (ii) whether such use will require users to enter into easements or other agreements with landowners, and (iii) at what specific altitudes drone usage constitutes an intrusion. Depending on how these questions are answered, it seems likely that new specializations will develop in the commercial real estate realm, and perhaps that previously untapped markets could experience a significant surge. For example, avigation easements could become vital for retailers who wish to fly their delivery drones through private neighborhoods, and a market for dealings in low altitude air rights, previously of interest to almost no one, is also likely to arise.

Property owners and other real estate professionals interested in integrating drones into their businesses should also consider the possibility of nuisance issues. The use of drones for retail delivery, as well for photography and other real estate uses, may require that the aircraft be flown throughout densely populated urban areas, being seen and heard by large numbers of people. Though it remains to be seen how such operations will be set up, one obvious system would involve placing drone centers or other landing pads in such urban areas, to be loaded and sent out for delivery to local business owners or direct consumers. Most drones currently available are only able to fly relatively short distances before requiring recharge, making it somewhat impractical to store or operate delivery drones in remote areas. Such centers may emit significant levels of noise and could adversely affect views for those living and working nearby, problems which may also need to be addressed by courts and lawmakers in the near future.

Other potential issues could also arise with the implementation of drones into real estate and other fields of business. Privacy concerns often make headlines, as the possibility of constant drone surveillance gives some individuals trepidation, fearing that they will be monitored or otherwise watched without their consent. The prospect that drones could replace jobs is also likely to become a source of unease for much of the population. The successful implementation of drones could decimate the need for delivery drivers and couriers, a problem which ties in with larger concerns among the general population with the recent implementation of other forms of artificial intelligence in business.

Currently, widespread drone use in the commercial context is not an immediate reality for most business models. Regulations set forth by the FAA and other agencies prohibit most commercial drone use without the granting of a specific exception. However, as drone technology continues to rapidly develop and public interest in the subject gains momentum, the topic is likely to become more pressing in the very near future. And with powerful corporations, such as Amazon, Walmart, Google and 7-Eleven expressing strong interest in the integration of drones into their business models, we are likely to see a strong push for regulation changes. As a result, real estate professionals, developers, business owners and property owners are likely to experience some shifts in the way their business is done over the coming months and years, and should keep themselves apprised of developments in the ever-increasing drone market.

 

Cassie Peterson