Where angels fear to tread

Update: On August 29, 2016, the FAA’s Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Rule (Part 107) came into effect.8

© 2015 John Leggatt

Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) are rules issued by the FAA governing all aviation activities in the United States. FARs regulate many aviation activities, including airline flights, pilot training, aircraft maintenance, and yes, drones.

Current FARs prohibit the commercial use of drones,1, 2 unless the party receives a specific FAA waiver.3 That permission is pretty tough to get: as of February 13, 2015, just two waivers have been granted for real estate photography.4 But Realtors argue that, so long as they stay under 400 feet above ground level, which is the ceiling for model airplanes, and are solely over the property owned by their client, they should be allowed to freely operate their drones. These folks believe that chances of being caught are low, and thus don’t bother applying for FAA approval.

That’s fine, but if there were an accident involving serious injury or substantial damage caused by a drone, real estate agents operating the drone can count on the feds getting involved. Part 830 of NTSB rules requires the operator of an aircraft involved in an accident to give immediate notification and later a written report of the accident.5 Once the NTSB has been informed, the FAA will join in the investigation. A violation of FARs is not like getting a speeding ticket; civil penalties for violations of FAA regulations can reach thousands of dollars, not including attorneys fees.6 If disciplinary action results from the FAA’s investigation, a real estate licensee may be required to report the facts to his/her real estate licensing authority, depending on reporting requirements of the state. A California real estate broker, for example, would be required to report the facts to the Bureau of Real Estate.If all this were not enough, an "illegal acts” exclusion in an insurance policy may allow an insurer to avoid covering a loss involving the illegal commercial use of a drone.


Nothing can beat a drone when it comes to producing breathtakingly beautiful images of real property. No wonder Realtors are rushing to get in on the ground floor of this quickly evolving technology. Knowing all the rules would be prudent, but if the real estate drone operator only has time to consider just one rule, that rule would be the law of unintended consequences. 

Bonne chance.


1 Federal Aviation Administration. (1981). Model Aircraft Operating Standards. Advisory Circular AC 91-57. Retrieved from

2 Federal Aviation Administration. (2015). Model Aircraft Operations. Retrieved from https://www.faa.gov/uas/model_aircraft/

3 Federal Aviation Administration. (2012). COA: Frequently Asked Questions. Retrieved from

Federal Aviation Administration. (2015). Authorizations Granted Via Section 333 Exemptions. Retrieved from

5 National Business Aviation Association. (n.d.). NTSB Accident and Incident Reporting Requirements. Retrieved from

Federal Aviation Administration. (n.d.). Civil Penalties. Retrieved from

7 Bureau of Real Estate. (2014). Indictment, Conviction, and Disciplinary Action Notification. Retrieved from

Federal Aviation Administration. (2016). Summary of Small Unmanned Aircraft Rule (Part 107). Retrieved from

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