Photography has always been the first and primary purpose of unmanned aerial vehicles, a.k.a drones. U.A.V’s have been the eyes of the military for decades now, conducting reconnaissance and surveillance from the battlefields of the middle east to the Korean demilitarized zone. But, on battlefields, they have not stayed. Cheaper, smaller drones are entering civilian airspace, allowing businesses and individuals the kinds of photographic capabilities that were previously only possessed by militaries.
The benefits of drones in architectural photography are immense. Only 10 years ago, aerial architectural photography required cranes or helicopter/planes, aka manned aerial vehicles, to get a shot. With the cost of resources like these running into the tens of thousands of dollars, smaller realtors simply couldn’t afford it and even larger ones could only attempt aerial shots sparingly. Fast forward to today, and a midrange commercial drone with a GoPro can get the same shots for a fraction of the cost. Aerial photography of architecture is so affordable and so much easier today, that almost anyone has the ability to take aerial photographs of almost anything…However, not everyone is thrilled about that.
Until March 24, 2015, use of drones for commercial purposes was prohibited, illegal for commercial use under any circumstance. On that date, the FAA gave its approval for the use of drones under 200ft, but only for companies that had prior approval, 45 total. This essentially means that drone use is still illegal for almost every business that wishes to use a drone. You may find this surprising, you may have seen news stories about the amazing new ways drones are being used, like Amazon’s plans to use drones for package delivery. You may know those in your own profession who have been using drones. Whichever the case, it’s almost certainly illegal. Only 45 companies have been approved for commercial drone use, any other business using drones is rolling the dice, hoping they won’t get caught. Whether illegal drone operators will get caught is an interesting question. On the one hand, poor pilots on the ground flying drones in heavily populated areas are a recipe for disaster, specifically, an inoperable drone and federal charges from the FAA. On the other hand, there will come the day when there are simply too many drones in the air to police. Drones are legal to purchase, you can buy them at Toys R Us. One day, they will all have cameras built in, just like our phones. They’ll also fly for much longer durations and be able to carry much more weight than today, and they’ll cost half as much. If the FAA still prohibits commercial drone use in 10 years, they won’t catch 95% of offenders. What does this mean for architectural photography? It means, fly a drone over your own house and take a picture without worry. It means, for the moment, use drones for aerial photography, at your own peril. It means, in the not too distant future, don’t be surprised if the drone replaces the photographer in some applications.
snapWerx’ position on drones is to not use them until they are legal to operate for commercial purposes and we have the proper certifications. This will hopefully come in 2015.