Mitigate the Risks of Flying Your Own Drone

Know your responsibilities when operating an unmanned aircraft, and learn how to choose one that is equipped to both avoid safety hazards and capture stunning aerial imagery.

You can’t beat the view from above.

An airborne camera can capture images that inspire, amaze, and even help close home sales. Remote-controlled drones equipped with high-quality cameras are widely available today for the price of a laptop or even less, giving anybody the ability to shoot photos and video from the sky. But carefully consider the costs of buying, insuring, and operating a drone when deciding whether to buy your own or hire a professional to shoot aerial photos and videos. It’s not just about affordability; choosing the right model and learning to fly it safely can be challenging.

Many real estate marketing firms offer drone photography services. For example, Chicago-based VHT Studios charges about $300 to shoot drone footage and photos of an individual listing, says CEO Brian Balduf. The price includes the services of a professional drone operator, photo and video editing, and hosting the material online. You can generally arrange for a drone shoot as little as two days ahead of time, and you typically receive access to the footage within two days after the shoot, Balduf says.

If you decide to buy your own drone, you’ll find that multiple manufacturers offer a variety of models that sport a broad range of features. The quality of the camera is paramount, says Kevin Tengan, CRS, e-PRO, a former Hollywood visual effects specialist who is now broker-owner of RE/MAX Prestige in Honolulu. Consumer-level models from brands such as DJI, GoPro, and Parrot typically come with a camera that can record HD or 4K images. But as with any digital camera, other factors also affect the quality of the video and photos, he says.

Pay attention to the size of the camera’s image sensor, measured in inches, and the size of the images it captures, expressed in pixels. In both cases, bigger numbers generally translate into clearer photos and videos. It’s also a good idea to examine sample footage before buying a drone to see what the camera is capable of producing. You can find examples from many drone models online. Here are some other points to keep in mind when shopping for a drone.

Staying steady. Aerial videos can be dizzying if the camera shakes. Make sure your drone comes with a stabilizing device known as a gimbal, which will isolate the camera from the vibrations caused by the propellers.

A three-axis gimbal will generally allow for a steadier shot than one with two axes. Many drones, such as DJI’s popular Phantom line ($599 to $1,499) and the Parrot Bebop 2 Power Adventurer ($599), have a three-axis gimbal. But cheaper models, such as DJI’s Spark ($499), have only a two-axis stabilization system.

Obstacle avoidance. Drones come with software and sensors to help you control the aircraft during takeoff and landing and while in flight. The guidance system also steers drones away from designated no-fly zones such as airports. The system automatically maneuvers the drone around obstacles such as trees or buildings. Some drones can detect only the obstacles in front of them, but others, such as DJI’s Phantom 4 Pro ($1,499), are also able to sense objects that are above or below.

Flight time. Like any portable electronic device, drones depend on batteries for power. The larger a drone’s battery, the longer you can expect it to fly. Other factors, such as the weight of the drone and the wind, can affect flight time, too. Many popular drones can fly for about a half-hour before needing to return to the ground. Buy extra batteries so you can keep flying when one of them runs out of power.

Range. Another factor to consider is how far a drone can fly. For example, the Phantom 4 Pro can travel about four miles before needing to turn back, while the GoPro Karma ($599-$1,000) can go about half that distance. A drone with a longer range is useful for capturing imagery of a large parcel of land, particularly if there are areas that are difficult to access on the ground.

Registration. No matter which drone you buy, you’ll need to get clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration to use it for marketing listings. The FAA simplified the certification process last year, but you’ll still need to pass a test of aeronautical knowledge at an FAA-approved testing center. The FAA, which refers to drones as unmanned aircraft systems, also requires you to register your drone.

Insurance. Operating a drone can be risky despite the steps manufacturers have taken to make their devices safe. Although they are lightweight, drones can injure people or damage property if they are involved in a collision. You can purchase insurance to help ensure you are protected should an accident occur.

UPDATE: GoPro announced on Jan. 8, 2018, that it will exit the drone business after selling its remaining inventory, citing an “extremely competitive aerial market” that constrained profits and a challenging regulatory environment in Europe and the United States. In a statement, the company added that it would continue to provide service and support to its existing drone customers.