Drones Take Flight in Record Numbers

While many retailers remain focused on the novelty of someday using drones to deliver packages, thousands of leaders in other industries have found much more practical and less gimmicky ways to benefit from these unmanned aerial vehicles.

An aerial view of a

A drone’s-eye-view of a home built by RMB Building & Design, courtesy of photographer Jeff Wenzel.

Legally flying a drone for commercial purposes — even if not charging a fee for the service — requires what is known as a Section 333 Exemption from the FAA.

At the start of 2015, only seven such exemptions had been authorized. But less than a year later, NAHBNow reported that the number had quickly grown to about 2,100.

Within the last four months, that number of authorized, commercial drone operators has skyrocketed to more than 4,500.

And the number keeps rising almost every day.

In fact, the FAA has been so inundated with requests, that it posted an advisory on its website to notify applicants of potential processing delays “due to the high volume of Section 333 petitions received…”

The intent — or as the FAA puts it, “mission” — of these drone operators ranges from wildlife surveys, to search-and-rescue training, to closed-set filming for commercials and movies.

But the most common missions listed include photography and videography of construction sites, real estate and infrastructure designs.

Travis Braxton, project manager and partner at RMB Building & Design in Wilmington, N.C., recently hired a family friend and photographer who owns and operates a drone to gather footage of one of RMB’s custom homes.

“This was our first time [using a drone], but it definitely won’t be the last,” Braxton said. “It captures such a unique perspective that you just wouldn’t ever be able to see from the ground. And showing our product in a way that differentiates us from our competitors is always a plus.”

Though not yet on the company’s website, the aerial images were shared on RMB’s Facebook page, where they quickly received several positive comments from clients.

An aerial view

Another aerial view from the rear of the home.

But before you attempt to commandeer a flight of your own, you should know that the FAA won’t allow just anyone to take the controls. Under Section 333, the pilot in command (PIC) “must hold either an airline transport, commercial, private, recreational, or sport pilot certificate. The PIC must also hold a current FAA airman medical certificate or a valid U.S. driver’s license…”

Once that’s taken care of, applying for and obtaining the exemption is fairly simple — and free, except for the $5 fee to register the drone. But paying the registration fee is a screamin’ deal compared to the penalties for flying an unregistered drone (civil penalties go up to $27,500, and criminal penalties up to $250,000 and jail time).

The Section 333 Exemption process will be in place until the Small UAS Rule — a more detailed list of operational limitations, operator responsibilities, and aircraft requirements — is finalized as early as later this spring.

NAHB recently took the necessary steps that enable it to work with builders, construction groups and other stakeholders to actively promote the development of technologies that improve business operations for builders.

A resolution was passed during the 2016 International Builders’ Show allowing NAHB to weigh in on technology-related issues with Congress and federal agencies in its efforts to protect small businesses from any misguided regulation and potential legal liability.


Comments (3)

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  1. Rob Noerper says:

    This is very significant for property, construction, and real estate photography… especially in suburban areas. It takes thousands to get the 333 exemption for licensed photography, and I’d bet that a lot of photography drone operators are sliding under the law as long as they can while the FAA navigates this fraught legal issue.

    • NAHB Now says:

      Rob, you are probably right in that many drone operators today are finding loop holes or simply flying illegally. Building industry pros who are intrigued by the business benefits of using drones but don’t want to pursue the 333, should seek out only licensed operators. Doing so will not only help limit liability, but it’s also likely to produce a better finished product.

  2. Amy says:

    The use of drone footage is changing the website game big time in the industry! I have seen some incredible footage being used to highlight communities and their features and this article was very helpful with finding out that not just anyone with a drone can legally fly them.

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