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New Heights

Property management in Maine has reached new heights.  I’m of course speaking of the use of drones in providing property management services.  Maine real estate firms have been using drones for marketing high-end properties for years, well before the latest FAA regulations had been released.  Even though Hollywood has been using unapproved drones for quite a while to capture those wild special effect scenes, most property management firms want to be compliant with FAA rules to minimize their liability.

The use of drones, otherwise known as unmanned aerial system (UAS) or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), is expanding rapidly.  FAA estimates there will be more than 7,500 commercial drones flying in the next two years to support a $5 billion industry.  Property managers wishing to use drones must comply with FAA’s new ‘UAS rule – Part 107’ requiring the drone to be registered under the Unmanned Aircraft System Registration Service (https://registermyuas.faa.gov).  Other important rules include:

  • Drone:  Must weigh less than 55 pounds
  • Control:  Must be controlled by a remote pilot
  • Certification: The pilot must have a FAA certificate and TSA security clearance
  • VLOS:  Operation of drone must be by visual line-of-sight only.
  • People:  Drones are not allowed to fly over people not involved in operation and cannot fly inside a building
  • Altitude: Drone must fly in daylight under 400 feet above ground level and 5 miles from an airport

Many of the uses of drones in property management are obvious.  The traditional method of building envelope inspection to detect or prevent water infiltration or deterioration was to use maintenance staff or hire an engineer to climb on to the roofs or use scaffolding or ladders to evaluate the envelope condition.  This can be both risky and expensive.

Drone inspection can significantly reduce the time and expense of building and grounds inspection.  With the use of available software, such as DroneDeploy, a drone can collect still and video imagery to make high-resolution maps or 3-D models of the building complex in question.  A typical condominium complex can be fully surveyed in under 20 minutes once the drone team arrives on site.

As with any type of service, there are grades of quality in drone image capture.  At a minimum, most projects will require an HD camera attached to the drone.  A better quality product will be gained by using a 4k camera which provides higher detail and allow the operator to zoom in for clearer images and study the structure with greater detail.  Future thermal imaging technology will allow accurate locating of water intrusions or missing insulation.

The question facing most property managers planning on offering drone produced information is whether they should operate their own drones or hire a third party service.  Often just the hassle and difficulty of keeping up with this rapidly changing technology will deter a property management firm from creating their own drone operations.  Just reviewing the firm’s insurance policy is enough to dissuade the faint hearted.  For one thing, most commercial general liability (CGL) policies have an aircraft exclusion prohibiting the use of drones.  To solve this issue insurance companies are now offering endorsements to the CGL to provide drone coverage or a firm can obtain stand-alone drone liability and property coverage.

Once a firm satisfies the FAA requirement for drone operations and provides this information to their insurance company, the cost for a drone liability endorsement is minimal ($200 - $500).  Keep in mind this added endorsement does not cover ‘non-owned coverage’ i.e. subcontracted drone services.  Also make sure the coverage includes ‘hull’ coverage, that is, coverage for the drone itself and its equipment package.  Needless to say, if the decision is to only use subcontracted drone services, make sure there is a clear understanding of contractual risk transfer with the contract clearly defining the obligations of the parties; insurance coverage; and experience.

Of course the world of drones does not stop there for the up-to-date condo property manager.  Private use of drones is exploding. Since the beginning of this year, the FAA has received over 550,000 private drone registration applications.  In that time 13,710 people have applied to take the drone pilot exam.  FAA now forecasts there will be more than 1.3 million licensed drone pilots by 2020.  Imagine how that will affect the future skies over condo complexes.

Now is the time to develop the new drone condo rules for your clients.  The FAA regulations only address safety issues but not functional permitted uses.  Questions to be addressed for condos include how a drone can be used (photography, videos, recreation, etc.); privacy; delivery services; liability coverage; and identification of drones and their operators.  And this is just the start.  There will be future issues associated with drones we have not begun to have imagined.  So before the sky starts falling, be prepared because its coming.

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Article written by Jack Carr, P.E., R.S., LEED AP, Criterium Engineers

Published in Condo Media, November, 2016

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