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Realtors, video production firm among first in Southwest Florida using drones

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Fort Myers, Florida (News-Press) -- Tracy Walters has a new view of real estate: from above.

The Sanibel Island Realtor got a remote control quadcopter for Christmas, and he's been using this four-motor drone to take aerial photos and videos of houses he has on the market.

"If you can put it up in the air and get a picture — an aerial — of the property, you can get a nice sense of not only the property itself but the neighborhood on both sides," said Walters, a partner at John Naumann & Associates.

Walters has always been an early adapter of technology and believes drones are the future. But right now, he understands they're still scary and controversial to some.

That's partly because the word drone has become politically and emotionally charged. Some worry that the technology will be used to peep into bedroom windows. Others are concerned that aircrafts not controlled by a remote control may be unwieldy or dangerous. And flying drones for commercial use is still a relatively new issue for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Yet in Southwest Florida, business professionals like Walters are seeing a vast potential in the technology. And those in real estate and video production are among the first capturing these new angles and fresh perspectives.

"The drone allowed us to get shots that we couldn't get otherwise," said Drew Townsend, president of The Naples Studio.

Drones make it possible for realtors to capture images that showcase properties and their surroudings from above.

Video helper

The Naples Studio has used drones three times and has two more projects in the works. Its most recent venture was last weekend when it shot video at GradyFest, which is a Grady-White Boats owners' festival hosted by Fish Tale Sales and Service on Fort Myers Beach. The Naples Studio worked with Andrzej Mrotek, who supplied and operated the drone.

The drone was used to capture video of a raft-up, where 42 boats were tied alongside each other. Travis Fricke, vice president of operations for Fish Tale Sales and Service, said one of the more picturesque raft-up moments was with two Labrador retrievers. A participant had trained them to jump into the water while chasing a water bottle, and the drone caught this on film.

"It was pretty cool and kind of a picture-perfect deal," Fricke said.

They also captured video, unrelated to GradyFest, of a Grady-White Freedom 375 running at about 25 mph. The drone allowed them to see facial expressions while the boat was in motion, and Townsend said that type of close-up shot can't be achieved when using a full-size helicopter.

Drones will be an integral part of The Naples Studio moving forward. The barriers to entry are dropping, and this makes purchasing drones more affordable. Or for Townsend — who has no interest in owning a drone because he wants a professional to fly it — this makes them more affordable to rent.

As for the debate surrounding drones and commercial use, Townsend said he isn't too concerned. He emphasized that they — along with many other local drone operators — safely control the device with a remote control. And the drone always stays within their line of sight, which is a distinct difference from Amazon's dream of flying drones across great distances to deliver packages.

"The FAA will work it out," he said of the commercial use. "I'm not concerned about it."

FAA rules

The FAA, which officially calls drones unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), said the following about commercial use, "Anyone who wants to fly an aircraft — manned or unmanned — in U.S. airspace needs some level of authorization from the FAA. The FAA authorizes commercial unmanned aircraft operations only on a case-by-case basis.

"A commercial flight requires a certified aircraft, a licensed pilot and operating approval. To date, one operation has met these criteria, using Insitu's ScanEagle, and authorization was limited to the Arctic."

The FAA expects to publish a proposed rule for small unmanned aircraft this year, and this will likely include regulations for commercial operations. In addition, 2012 legislation had a mandate for the safe integration of drones by Sept. 30, 2015. The FAA is interpreting this as meaning it must have a plan where it's showing progress against milestones.

Mrotek, who flew the drone at GradyFest and is the owner of Sarasota-based Alchemist Aerials, said drone professionals believe the FAA will allow them to continue operating this technology for commercial use. It's a benefit to business and society.

He started flying remote control planes and helicopters about 20 years ago as a hobby. It became his full-time career almost three years ago, and Mrotek travels the country — and sometimes the world — to fulfill clients' aerial video and photography needs. He has five helicopters, with either six or eight motors, costing between $15,000 and $30,000 each.

He's confident this equipment will meet and exceed any requirements or regulations the FAA sets, and he welcomes regulation that will make the industry safer.

"Our fear as professional drone operators are amateurs doing unsafe things," he said. Mrotek, who puts an emphasis on safety, always flies the drone within his line of sight and never steers it over large crowds of people. He also flies lower than 400 feet because manned aircraft generally fly at the 500 feet range and higher.

Fine nixed

Earlier this month, a federal judge dismissed a $10,000 fine the FAA placed on Raphael Pirker. According to the decision, he was flying a Ritewing Zephyr powered glider aircraft near the University of Virginia, and he received payment for video and photos taken during the flight.

The judge ruled that at the time of Pirker's model aircraft use, "there was no enforceable FAA rule or FAR Regulation applicable to model aircraft or for classifying model aircraft as an UAS." The FAA has since appealed the decision based on safety concerns.

Mrotek said this decision "legitimizes what our belief has been and what we do. It legitimizes our business even more."

About 70 percent of his business is for filming TV commercials. The rest involves using drones for projects like filming movies, capturing footage for real estate, and inspecting plants — such as nuclear power plants — so humans aren't put at risk.

Drones will be the future, he said. They will spray agricultural fields, inspect industrial plants, help build houses and deliver medicine to remote areas. They will be in the skies, and they will be a good thing for society.

"Drones are to be welcomed and not feared," he said.

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