Drone photography sweeps over Charlotte's commercial real estate scene

Steve Massi, FAA licensed UAV pilot and videographer for Carolina Digital Photo Group, operates a drone that CDPG uses for photography in commercial real estate sales.
Steve Massi, FAA licensed UAV pilot and videographer for Carolina Digital Photo Group, operates a drone that CDPG uses for photography in commercial real estate sales.

When Larry Harwell’s drones take flight to photograph some of Charlotte’s most prominent commercial real estate developments, he doesn’t worry about the Federal Aviation Administration anymore.

That’s because Harwell and business partner Bill Plampin, co-owners of Carolina Digital Photo Group, are now working with Steve Massi, a private pilot licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration earlier this year to fly his DJI Phantom 2 quadcopter drone and take commercial photos.

“We can do this without Uncle Sam getting all over us,” said Harwell, whose company has shot drone video for buildings including Lincoln Harris’ new Capitol Towers office development in SouthPark. “I’ve been in a million helicopters and I love them, but this is taking off.”

As fast-moving technology and regulations continue to sweep the drone field, real estate photography companies are scrambling to keep up. Like Harwell, more companies specializing in commercial real estate photography are moving to get compliant with the FAA’s regulations allowing commercial use of drones.

Drone-shot photos and videos have rapidly become a mainstay of real estate marketing. The agile mini-helicopters can swoop low over a construction site, smoothly ascend to the height of a future tower, hover over apartment swimming pools and even fly inside of large enough structures.

Photos and videos from drones are cheaper, more visually interesting and quicker to produce than traditional aerial photography from a helicopter or a plane, supporters say. A helicopter costs hundreds of dollars an hour and can’t fly down to treetop level next to a house. While people worry about drones getting in the way of planes, planes can themselves be dangerous: Harwell says he once kicked a fire extinguisher while shooting photos at 10,000 feet, filling the cockpit of a small plane with fumes and necessitating an emergency landing.

“If you have a piece of land that’s waterfront, you can take a ground photo and see the lake,” said Terrice McClain, a drone enthusiast who started a marketing business called Sky Pros last year. “If you take it from above, you can see the whole property.”

And when you’re trying to sell someone on a multimillion house or deal to build a new apartment tower, some extra-slick marketing can make a difference. A quick web search for new major developments around Charlotte, such as the office tower under construction at 615 South College Street, shows many are using drone photography to show off their sites or demonstrate the view from a new tower.

“It’s a little bit more intriguing, a little more engaging,” said Brett Osborne, lead photographer at Clear Sky Images. “Not just, ‘Hey look, here’s a picture of your site.’”

Battery-powered drones cost a few hundred to tens of thousands of dollars. They’ve spread rapidly, giving hobbyists and small businesses access to photographic techniques that used to be out of their price range. Other businesses besides photographers are using drones too: Amazon and Walmart are testing drone delivery, and Duke Energy has received permission to use drones to inspect some of its facilities.

The technology’s quick rise has left the FAA struggling to write rules to keep drones out of the way of planes and helicopters.

The FAA has started allowing commercial use of drones, but only under strict criteria. Operators must have a pilots’ license and apply for a special exemption from the FAA. Drones are limited to flying 400 feet, and generally must be within the operator’s line of sight. So far, the FAA has granted about 2,100 operators permission to use commercial drones nationwide. All of the photography businesses I interviewed for this story said they have received permission or are currently seeking it from the FAA.

The FAA has threatened some operators with stiff fines. Last month, the FAA announced it was seeking a $1.9 million fine against SkyPan International, a Chicago-based photography company the agency accuses of operating drones in restricted airspace in New York City and Chicago. SkyPan disputes the allegations.

Technology changing fast

Osborne said the technology is changing so fast it could soon push photo companies out of some of their current lines of business.

Construction site photography, currently a hot business line, could be supplanted by construction firms that buy their own drones once the FAA establishes new rules allowing non-pilots to operate the machines in limited settings.

“Most companies probably will wind up getting their own $1,000 drone to capture their own photos,” said Osborne.

And drones won’t replace all aerial photography. Due to limitations on battery size, flight times are limited to 15 or 20 minutes, compared to hours that a photographer can stay up in a helicopter or plane.

With a ceiling of 400 feet, drones won’t do much good for showing off the view of a 60-story tower. At greater distances, the higher altitude a plane or helicopter can achieve is still better for showing spatial relationships.

The falling cost of camera-equipped drones can itself be a challenge, as more businesses jump into the field.

“It’s growing by leaps and bounds,” said David Fuller of Lake Norman-based AeroMediaPro. “Competition is way more than it used to be.”

But the cost advantage and increased flexibility ensure drones will remain a fixture in commercial real estate marketing.

“For the cost of renting a helicopter, we can do several projects,” said Fuller.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo