By Jim Harger
GRAND RAPIDS, MI – From a small patch of grass, Taylor Blom smoothly launches his video camera drone over Rosa Parks Circle. Looking like a large white spider, the drone whirs silently overhead, unnoticed by most in the park.
Using a handheld remote control, Blom collects dramatic images of the downtown skyline on an app he has installed on his iPhone. He switches to live video and scans the horizon and the Grand River beyond as the drone hovers 45 meters over the park.
Before landing, Blom deftly lowers the “quadcopter” to take a “dronie,” the term for a “selfie” shot from a drone.
Blom, the owner of Front Door Photos, says he would love to use the drone in his business, which specializes in taking photographs of homes for West Michigan real estate agents.
“It produces great vantage points,” said Blom, a Holland resident who started his business one year ago. “It adds a really cool visual element to that service.”
The drone is especially good at producing dramatic photos and videos of lakefront homes, said Blom, who bought his DJI Phantom 2 Vision for about $1,500 this spring – about half of what he spent on his last camera lens.
But Blom and dozens of other real estate photographers dare not publish their work. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has outlawed all commercial use of “unmanned aerial vehicles” or UAVs until it issues new rules and regulations regarding their use.
Drones fit the “model aircraft” category in FAA regulations and are allowed for recreational purposes. But Clifford Maine, a Grand Rapids lawyer with Barnes and Thornburg, said he has advised his clients to avoid any commercial exploitation of the drone technology until the new rules come out sometime before Sept. 30, 2015.
Meanwhile, the FAA has made it clear it does not want Realtors — or wedding photographers or news photographers – to use UAVs for commercial purposes.
“There are no shades of gray in FAA regulations. Anyone who wants to fly an aircraft—manned or unmanned—in U.S. airspace needs some level of FAA approval,” according to “Busting Myths about the FAA and Unmanned Aircraft,” a bulletin published on the FAA’s web site.
While a few real estate photographers have tested the regulations, none have been formally charged with violating the FAA rules, which specifically forbid Realtors from using drone-produced photography or videos.
News agencies including MLive and The Grand Rapids Press also have been advised not to post commercial video or photos shot from drones. Hence, the photographs with this article show Blom operating his drone, but do not show his drone’s photography.
For Blom, the wait for regulations is a time to learn about his drone, which he carries around in a small plastic case.
Equipped with a flight system that automatically adjusts for wind conditions, Blom said he learned how to operate the drone after a few hours of practice on the golf course near his home.
The drone is outfitted with a high-resolution digital camera that sends live shots or video to Blom’s iPhone, which can store the images or videos or send them to a small storage card. The rechargeable batteries allow for 20-minute flights that can range up to a third of a mile from the controller.
Kevin Cole, the owner of Image Michigan, owns a similar drone. He said it has the potential to revolutionize the aerial photography business he started in 2007.
Cole, of Grand Rapids, specializes in high resolution aerial and elevated photographs and videos he shoots from towers he sets up or airplanes he rents from local pilots. It’s an expensive business that will be dramatically changed once drone photography becomes legal, Cole said.
“The drone is the absolute perfect platform for us; we can do it for half the price,” said Cole, who counts real estate developers and construction companies among his clients.
Like Blom, Cole says he is playing with his drone now so he can be ready to swing into action once the FAA rules are published. “We’re trying to be the first in the business,” he said.
Maine, along with Blom and Cole, expect the FAA to exercise some regulatory control over who can fly the drones commercially.
Whether it requires training, certification or a special license, they all agree the drones will need to be regulated to avoid congestion and irresponsible use in public venues or athletic events where every soccer dad is trying to create video footage of their child.
“As it gets more and more popular and the cost goes down, I would be in favor of regulating it,” said Blom, who believes real estate photographers like himself will be required to carry a license.
But despite any regulations, Blom said he expects drones will be the next big thing in photography.
“Every indication is that in the next 10 years, it’s going to be a $10 billion industry.”