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McClatchy-Tribune  05/15/2014 8:14 PM ET
Drones hit home as local agents use sky-high technology to market properties [The Baltimore Sun :: ]

May 15--Real estate agents have long boasted of the lengths they'll go to market properties. Now, for some, the sky's the limit.

As unmanned aircraft become more widely available, some agents have started to use drones to sell listings, inviting prospective buyers on aerial tours of country estates, waterfront acreage -- and even standard, suburban development.

"A buyer today wants to see a stunning Hollywood trailer experience," said Robert McArtor, an agent with Re/Max Components in Fallston, who uses a GoPro camera mounted on the belly of a quadcoptor to take aerial video of his listings. "We have created the wow factor."

McArtor, who does not consider himself a tech aficionado, said he "was nervous as all heck" when he launched his first drone this winter, a bug-like aircraft he flies by remote control, looping around a property at an altitude of 25 to 50 feet. It took more than 20 hours of flight time -- and a few crashes -- to develop the technique.

"I flew this thing all winter long," he said. "I'm kind of a nerd with this thing now."

McArtor is one of the few agents in the Baltimore region talking about his activities -- at least in part because using a drone for a commercial purpose is officially outlawed by the Federal Aviation Administration, which is authorized to regulate unmanned aircraft and has been working on rules to govern systems weighing less than 55 pounds since 2008. (Hobbyists are allowed to fly drones up to 400 feet in the air.)

The National Association of Realtors has advised its members not to use unmanned aircraft to market properties until the FAA issues regulations, but the group signed on to a letter sent to the FAA in April, urging officials to come out with the new rules sooner rather than later.

"The concern here is that this industry is starting to form itself, and the longer the FAA waits to write the rules, the more difficult it's going to be to get the horse back in the barn," said Ben Gielow, general counsel for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an industry trade group, which organized the letter.

The FAA said it expects to publish the rules this year; the initial deadline was 2011.

In the meantime, the agency has issued at least 12 cease-and-desist letters to people using drones for commercial purposes, said spokesman Les Dorr, who estimated that the press office spends 80 percent of its time fielding questions about unmanned aircraft.

"Think of the magnitude of the task. We are trying to write safety regulations for a very dynamic industry, and we have to write these regulations for unmanned aircraft that are going to be using the busiest and most complex airspace in the world," he said. "It has a been a major challenge to write safety regulations that will ensure the safety of people and property ... while not putting an undue regulatory burden on an emerging industry."

The FAA estimates that 7,500 unmanned commercial aircraft will be licensed to fly by 2018, but a market study by Gielow's group predicted sales of 160,000 units per year by 2020. Agriculture is expected to represent 80 percent of the sales, with real estate falling into a 10 percent "other category."

While some are forging ahead with the technology, uncertainty about the rules is holding back wider use, Gielow said.

"Until the FAA comes out with the rules and finalizes them, the industry will be grounded," he said.

In the Mid-Atlantic region, the number of drones used in real estate is small but growing. A March survey by the MRIS multiple listing service of 1,300 real estate professionals found that 1.3 percent had used drones to market listings and that 52 percent did not plan to do so in the next 12 months.

About 13 percent said they expect to do so in the next 12 months, while 35 percent were unsure of their plans.

Andrew Strauch, MRIS vice president of product innovation and marketing, said he is not personally familiar with agents using drones but has seen them employed for listings on the West Coast. He said it could make buying and se

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