Are drones the future of aerial photography?

Tuesday, November 21st, 2017 at 8:56 am

By: Jason Scott

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, what is the value of aerial photography and video captured by today’s unmanned aircraft systems, aka drones?

In residential and commercial real estate, the demand for drone services continues to rise, and uses have expanded beyond producing photos for marketing materials.

From help with safety planning before heavy equipment is brought
into a new site to quick checks of subcontractor progress on a project, the broader range of what drones can do on construction sites helps justify the expense for those companies buying their own drones.

Meanwhile, more photographers also are getting approvals from the Federal
Aviation Administration (FAA) to legally take pictures from the sky. This is bolstering the value of their work to residential and commercial clients who may not be interested in getting licensed to fly their own drones.

“I believe it’s getting to be a must-have on job sites,” said Rob Moyer, director of information technology for Manchester Township-based Wagman
Inc. “It’s not a big expense for the value it gives you.”

Wagman has been using drones for about three years. More recently, the York County construction company has been looking to get all of its project managers certified to fly drones.

The goal is to eventually be able to use a drone on any job at any time, Moyer said.

Wagman uses drones to show owners where progress is on construction projects. In place of a ladder or bucket truck to inspect something, the company may send up a drone to get close-up pictures of specific areas to ensure there are no problems.

“It’s about time and cost and avoiding rework,” he said.

A drone can be used to take pictures of a pile of dirt or other site materials to gauge how much of something is on the ground already. The infrared camera on a drone might be used to test a building for leaks and potential heat loss.

“I wouldn’t see a job where we wouldn’t get value in having a drone,” Moyer said. “The technology with these drones evolves so much that an
amateur can do a lot.”

‘When they can see it they love it’

This aerial photo of the new headquarters of Earl R. Martin Inc. in East Earl Township, Lancaster County,
was taken using a quadrocopter operated by Lancaster County-based commercial photographer Jordan Bush.

This aerial photo of the new headquarters of Earl R. Martin Inc. in East Earl Township, Lancaster County, was taken using a quadrocopter operated by Lancaster County-based commercial photographer Jordan Bush. – (Jordan Bush Photography)

Right now Wagman has three licensed operators and four drones. The company still hires professional photographers for more detailed visual requests.

“We’re not big enough to do it all in-house,” Moyer said. “We always want someone who knows photography and I think there will always be a need to have professionals photographers come in.”

Drones can be purchased for less than $1,000, though many commercial
photographers are spending $1,500, or even more, per drone. Most operators
have more than one on hand.

“I think it’s pretty much a standard now,” said commercial photographer and videographer Robert Benton of RDB Imaging LLC in Conewago Township.

Benton works almost exclusively with commercial builders, including Wagman. He captures photos of big projects they are working on, including construction of schools, retail buildings, hotels and other commercial development. He got licensed to fly drones in April.

Most builders use the aerial photography to capture unique views of a project to show off their capabilities to prospective clients, Benton said, espe­cially on the large-scale construction sites.

However, he said the biggest value of his photography services, especially with a lot of professional service firms now flying their own drones, is still the photos he captures on the inside of a building.

The aerial photography is the add­ed value in his overall package for a client. He doesn’t charge more for the drone shots.

“The architects, almost all of them, have drones, but they don’t have the ability to do interior pictures,” he said. “They need interior and exterior. That makes my services a lot more valu­able.”

Other photographers, including Lancaster County’s Jordan Bush, be­lieve that the industry is just scratch­ing the surface with drone use. Bush is a freelance photographer for the Business Journal.

There is a huge amount of value for clients, he said, especially those look­ing to redesign their websites and tell their stories more visually with photos and video content.

“Clients don’t always know what they want, but when they can see it they love it,” he said.

Bush, who got his FAA certification in July, has been using aerial photog­raphy with Lancaster County clients such as trucking company Earl R Martin Inc., which has been investing heavily in photography of its f leet and new facilities to market its growing brand. Bush said he sees a lot of po­tential in working with vendors and customers in the trucking company’s energy and agriculture sectors.

“The ag side is appealing because there is so much of it,” he said. “How much food and produce goes out of here is enormous.”

More, faster

From a real estate perspective, it’s hard to see drone use ever going away, Bush said. Those in the business of buying and selling homes agree, though spending the extra money on aerial photography is still catching on in Central Pennsylvania.

A lot of residential real estate agents don’t want to spend the extra $75 to $100, or maybe much more, for some larger properties, or if videos are in­cluded, to market a listing.

Rob Neidlinger is not in that group. Part of the Heather Neidlinger Team at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Homesale Realty in Carlisle, Nei­dlinger said he uses drones for about 30 to 40 percent of listings today. The Neidlinger team has been investing in aerial photography for about the last two to three years.

“I consider it marketing for getting the next listing,” he said. “It gives me a leg up.”

Price and condition of the home are still paramount in selling a home, he said. But drone photos can help get deals done faster because of how they not only highlight the home but the surrounding area, which might be at­tractive to the buyer.

“We feel all three put together helps,” he said.

Most agents will generally pay to use drones for marketing higher-end listings, but drone use is gaining trac­tion across price points, depending on location. Neidlinger said he’s used it for $125,000 townhomes and even a mobile home park he owns.

“I think it comes down to money,” he said. “We’re a big team and we can afford it.”

The Neidlinger team has up to 50 listings at any given time. It sold near­ly 300 homes last year with about $42 million in sales volume. Neidlinger said the team of 12 agents is on pace for $50 million to $60 million this year because of the continued growth in the local housing market.

One of Lancaster County’s top agents, Anne Lusk of Lusk & Associ­ates Sotheby’s International Realty, also uses a big chunk of her marketing budget on drones. Lusk also handles many of the area’s most expensive list­ings, which attract a lot of out-of-town buyers who expect unique perspec­tives of homes they are considering in Central Pennsylvania.

“The first showing today is on someone’s phone or iPad,” Lusk said. “People are enthralled with video and drone photography.”

That said, not every homeowner wants aerial photography used to market their property, she said, citing security concerns. And there is no guarantee the added expense will sell a listing any faster or at all.

But Lusk would rather pursue it than not.

“I think as a society we want more information faster,” she said. “The drones are just one step closer to something more interesting that hasn’t even been invented yet. We try to be on the cutting edge, but we’re al­so sensitive to privacy and safety.”

Nothing but blue skies

Being in the drone business is not without other challenges, said Gary Patton, owner of 360 Tour Designs of Lancaster, who does mostly residen­tial aerial photography and video.

“I think our biggest challenge is that people want blue sky and white puffy clouds,” said Patton, a former real estate agent.

But bad weather can create back­logs in the flying schedule. Trying to shoot on trash collection day isn’t beneficial to listings either.

“We can’t have people waiting around on a sunny day. It’s a balance,” he said.

Patton, who also has done some commercial work, including video content for the Shoppes at Belmont project in Manheim Township, said growing competition is another chal­lenge but there will always be a group of Realtors who need someone to take good photos for their listings.

“Plenty have their own drones and take their own pictures, but I’m not going out of business because of that,” he said.

The challenge with trying to go after commercial clients is that it’s mostly a one-and-done audience, he said, where Realtors who hire him fre­quently have new listings to shoot.

Most small business owners don’t need or have the resources to pay for regular video updates to market their business.

However, Patton said he sees po­tential in non-residential uses, if he opts to diversify his business. Like Bush, he mentioned a lot of opportu­nity in agriculture, namely around harvest season in Lancaster County. Drones can help identify differences in crop colorations and bare spots in the fields, which can help a farmer isolate problems with disease or may­be lack of irrigation.

“It’s just a huge market,” said Pat­ton. “If we can help them grow their yield, we look like a hero.”

Opportunity is in the air.

“We haven’t been around it enough to know what is possible,” Bush said.