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Real estate drones: ready for takeoff

Beautiful as it is, the home on Mystic Valley Parkway in Medford looks even better from a hundred feet up. From there, you get a better view of the verdant, tree-studded parkland just across the road and the Mystic River rolling past.

A drone used to take real estate photos and video.
A drone used to take real estate photos and video.(Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

So when Jonathan de Araujo, the real estate broker hired to sell the property, created a sales video, he included aerial images shot by a remotely controlled drone aircraft. "It really shows the area," de Araujo said. "The clients love it."

But the Federal Aviation Administration might not be quite so happy. The agency allows hobbyists to fly their drones, but any commercial use is banned unless the operator gets an exemption. De Araujo hasn't gotten around to it yet — "I need to look into it," he said — so technically he's on the wrong side of the law.

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Luckily, de Araujo would face a fine at worst. Goaded by public fascination with these agile battery-powered flying machines, and their vast potential as tools of business, the FAA has proposed new rules that could put tens of thousands of commercial drones in American skies in the next several years.

And real estate agents will be among the first to take advantage. "I don't know anyone who doesn't enjoy the magic of a well-made drone video," said Charles Cherney of Hammond Residential Real Estate in Cambridge. "It's bringing you into a view of things you never thought was possible."

Drone shots don't always make sense. For instance, de Araujo won't display aerial images of houses in compact urban areas. "Sometimes an aerial video will show that the house is awfully close to the neighbors' houses, and that's not what we're trying to convey," he said. Drones are better used to show off homes surrounded by lots of open space.

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Still, the Massachusetts Association of Realtors is urging real estate brokers to proceed with caution. "We are advising our members not to use drones themselves or to hire a third-party company," said the group's general counsel, Michael McDonagh. "We certainly don't want any of our members to be sort of a test case." But McDonagh understands why his members are so eager to get airborne. "This is a unique new way to display a property in a more cost-effective manner," he said.

Especially if it's a big property surrounded by lots of open space, like the Medford house, or an undeveloped 11.57-acre island property on offer in Scituate. "We figured the best way to market the islands is with an aerial drone," said real estate broker David Murdock of Boston's Campion & Co., who is listing the property with Tracy Campion.

There's a stately quality to the video, as the drone-powered camera sweeps serenely over land and water. "What we wanted to do," said Murdock, "was show what the views would be like on the second or third floors of the house," when one is eventually built.

Murdock and Campion are asking $2,199,000 for the site, and figure the new owner will have to spend at least that much again to build a house worthy of it. They're getting some nibbles, in no small part because of the video. Because customers can view it online, "we can bring the island to them wherever they are, and it's got a global reach," Murdock said. "The feedback has been tremendous.

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"Aerial drone videography allows potential buyers to experience a full scope of terrain of any real estate opportunity, on their own time and in their own environment. ... Photos and photo tours and plot plans just cannot articulate what a narrated aerial video can accomplish for educating the consumer."

While some pioneering home brokers like de Araujo take a do-it-yourself approach and handle the drone flights themselves, Murdock and Campion hired Matthew Murphy, president of Boston Virtual Imaging, a pioneering purveyor of commercial drone photography.

Murphy holds a private pilot's license and has accumulated 120 hours of flight time in small planes and helicopters. He started using drones for real estate shoots last year, before the FAA began issuing exemptions to its commercial flight ban. He'll soon apply for such an exemption, but he'll keep flying while he waits. After all, he said, "there hasn't been any enforcement." Murphy said new regulations the FAA proposed in February look pretty good to him, and he'll gladly comply once they're finalized.

Matthew Murphy, president of Boston Virtual Imaging, prepared his drone for flight in Wellesley.
Matthew Murphy, president of Boston Virtual Imaging, prepared his drone for flight in Wellesley.(jessica rinaldi/ globe staff)

Murphy's been shooting photos from helicopters since 2004, but it turns out that helicopters are less than ideal for real estate shoots. There's the cost, of course. "The cheapest helicopter you can rent is a two-seater, and it costs you $400 an hour," Murphy said. Then there's the matter of altitude. "It's not like the movies," he said. "Helicopter pilots don't like to fly low and slow. They like to fly high and fast." Especially since altitude cuts the risk of a potentially devastating collision with trees or power lines.

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Drones are a cheaper alternative for frequent fliers like Murphy. His favorite drone, the DJI S800 with six electrically powered rotor blades, costs $2,000. Spend a few thousand more on a top-quality video camera and lens and you're in business.

Besides, "we were able to get better photographs from the drone," Murphy said. The flying robots do their best work at low altitude. They're perfect for producing dreamlike vistas as the lens soars above the terrain or rising slowly from ground level to the heavens in a classic movie-ending crane shot.

Boston Virtual Imaging charges a minimum of $800. But for that, you just get a set of still photos shot from the drone. Prices go higher for the kind of sweeping high-definition video the company produced for Murdock.

Murphy's company faces a wave of new competitors, including at least two local drone operators who've gotten their FAA exemptions and are therefore fully legal. Patrick MacAllister, owner of Aerial Optics in Marshfield, flew helicopters for 24 years and sees drones as a way of getting back in the air. He bought one about a year ago and has conducted dozens of practice flights. But MacAllister decided against selling his services until he got an exemption from the FAA. "I wasn't making any money just because I didn't want to risk my pilot's license," he said.

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For now, the FAA is providing exemptions only to people with commercial or private pilot's licenses. These operators may fly drones weighing less than 55 pounds at altitudes below 400 feet. In addition, the drone must remain within visual range of the pilot, and can't be flown over cities or within 5 miles of a major airport.

Exemption in hand, MacAllister is now open for business and will charge as little as $80 for an aerial shoot. But it takes more than low prices to win customers. Brokers need attractive shots of a home's interior as well, and that's a service MacAllister wasn't planning to provide. "I spoke with a bunch of realtors, and it already seems they have someone who'll do the whole package for them," said MacAllister. Now he'll have to find a partner with a good eye for interior videography or master the art himself.

Besides, MacAllister's got other options. His drone has an infrared camera that can detect heat leaking from a building. That's useful for doing energy-efficiency audits. He can inspect commercial buildings or power lines, offer land developers a God's-eye view of new properties, and perhaps scout movie locations on the side. "There's a lot of other areas I'm trying to focus on," MacAllister said. "Real estate's a small part of it."

But for broker Robert Kinlin of Robert Paul Properties Inc., real estate is everything. Kinlin is using drone video to show off an exquisite $25 million home in Dartmouth. "When you're trying to give a sense of the overall emotion that the property gives off, it's been terrific to capture that," he said.

Kinlin knew that the video shoot he commissioned strayed a little bit over the line. But given the home's remote location, there was no risk of crashing the drone into a strolling pedestrian or passing airplane, so he saw no need for FAA approval. "I'm going to push the envelope," Kinlin said.

It's a bit of a gamble for now. But in a year or so, when drone videos have become a standard feature of the home-buying sales pitch, we'll hardly remember what the fuss was about.


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.