Americas Multirotor

Still Unconvinced, Home Buyer? Check Out the View From the Drone



The Georgian-style estate comes with a five-bedroom house and four wood-burning fireplaces, a separate studio and a heated pool on two acres in Greenwich, Conn. But it has a $6.1 million price tag, and more than a dozen showings since October had yielded no buyer.

It was time to bring in the drone.

Controlled remotely by a hand-held console, it took off from the driveway with a loud mechanical whine and hovered around 20 feet in the air to record video of the house against a wintry landscape of snow-flecked trees. Its handler later launched it inside, where it whirred past a chandelier and framed oil paintings before soaring up to the 30-foot ceiling for a panoramic view.

Within days, the footage shot by the drone was being edited into a slick video for Halstead Property’s website, where the drone-aided video of another offering — a $7.6 million beach house on Brush Island Road in Darien, Conn. — has been viewed more than 500,000 times.

“We’re not selling $150,000 homes with this technology,” said Matthew Leone, the director of web marketing and chief drone master for Halstead. “Multimillion-dollar homes demand Madison Avenue marketing and advertising, not Main Street.”

Drones, once the stuff of science fiction, have become objects of endless fascination and concern as they have been adapted to military and civilian life. Their ability to go where the police cannot make them an ideal tool for surveillance, and their speed could deliver Amazon packages even faster, though drone operators face a thicket of privacy and safety issues.

But these machines are already hard at work in the real estate industry, where robo-agents are being launched into the skies to show off gilded properties when terrestrial images simply cannot do them justice.

These drones, much closer to remote-controlled planes than to the unmanned aircraft used in warfare, have captured the views from a Hamptons compound as well as the carvings on a Greek Revival mansion, taking footage that is otherwise impossible to record, even with a helicopter. “You actually see the house and its facade in relation to the water as opposed to just seeing the roof,” said Bradley Nelson, senior vice president of marketing for Sotheby’s International Realty, which listed a $65 million estate in North Haven, N.Y., with a striking drone-taken photo of the home and its reflection on the water.

Douglas Elliman and Brown Harris Stevens also have used drones in the Hamptons. Halstead has deployed customized drones in more than 200 high-end homes in the New York, Connecticut and New Jersey suburbs since 2009.

Alchemy Properties, which is developing a luxury condominium at 35 West 15th Street, paid $22,000 last year to a company that positioned a drone at the height of various floors — before they were even built — to show potential buyers the skyline and window views they would have. The building, which is expected to be completed in 2014, has sold more than half of its 55 units.

Drones have become more widely used in the real estate industry as ready-to-fly models have come onto the market and replaced the need for expensive custom-built ones that used to cost thousands of dollars. Eric Cheng, a San Francisco-based aerial photographer who flies drones, said that a drone capable of carrying a camera can be purchased for about $500. “The market has gone drone crazy,” said Mr. Cheng, who receives calls from real estate agents a couple of times a week.

But the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates the nation’s air space, does not sanction flying drones outdoors for a commercial purpose. Though real estate agents and drone pilots say they keep the machines on private property and fly them below 400 feet — the accepted ceiling for model airplanes — an F.A.A. spokesman said that the model airplane guidelines did not apply to commercial drones and that drone operators needed special approval from the agency. The spokesman added that no real estate agency had been granted permission.

The F.A.A. can impose fines if drones are operated in a “careless or reckless” manner, the spokesman said. In the only such case publicly disclosed by the agency, it issued a $10,000 fine — the maximum for a violation — in 2012 to a man who was flying a drone around the University of Virginia campus; the man is appealing the fine.

Robyn Kammerer, a spokeswoman for Halstead, said that its operator followed a 20-point preflight checklist to ensure safety before launching any drone. She added that the drone’s flight was confined to the private property being sold and did not usually exceed 30 feet high. “We are very careful and we take this very seriously,” she said. “We are never reckless.”

Mark Segal, president of SkyPan International, which took the photos for Alchemy, said his company did not seek F.A.A. approval at the time because the agency did not have a system for managing commercial drones below 400 feet. He added that most developers believed that once they purchased air rights over future development sites, “view images created by robots, drones or blimps should be allowed without F.A.A. involvement as long as these airships stay directly over the property footprint and follow certain safety procedures.”

The F.A.A. declined to comment on Mr. Segal’s statement. The agency is expected to propose new rules in 2014 specifically regulating small drones (under 55 pounds).

At the Greenwich estate, the drone resembled a futuristic black bug with a glowing red eye. It had four carbon-fiber propellers and sensors that recorded and transmitted its flight data to a control panel operated by Victor Lee. The drone was powered by a battery that kept it aloft for up to 10 minutes at a time. This summer, Mr. Lee burned through 18 batteries in Darien while filming a $30 million estate, which was so big he rode a golf cart to get around.

Halstead initially used drones to shoot photos, and it expanded into video this year after the technology improved to give the final product a look that was, as Mr. Leone put it, “cinematic” rather than “Blair Witch Project.” Halstead has also started testing the drones inside large New York City apartments, but there are no plans to fly the drones outdoors in the city.

Halstead’s drone operator, Mr. Lee, carries liability insurance to cover any damage if the drones were to, say, run into a Calder mobile or fall on heirloom crystal. Mr. Leone said that there had been no accidents.

Only Mr. Lee is allowed in the same room as a flying drone, though curious homeowners often observe from another room. The drones have added a cool factor to company parties, including the opening of Halstead’s headquarters on Park Avenue, where one was on display but did not fly.

Mr. Leone unveiled the first drone in 2009 outside a country club where Halstead brokers were celebrating the company’s expansion into Connecticut. As the brokers posed for a group photo, the drone lifted off.

“We said, ‘Everybody, wave to the drone,’” Mr. Leone said.

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