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What part can drones play in the property market?
  • Sep 13, 2021
  • Latest Journal

by Sophie Henwood and Navpreet Atwal

Appreciating the principle of caveat emptor, experienced property investors understand the need for and value of due diligence when purchasing a property. Buyers will generally instruct solicitors to investigate title to the property and surveyors to appraise and value it, all with a view to understanding any existing or potential liabilities and risks.

Appreciating the principle of caveat emptor, experienced property investors understand the need for and value of due diligence when purchasing a property. Buyers will generally instruct solicitors to investigate title to the property and surveyors to appraise and value it, all with a view to understanding any existing or potential liabilities and risks.

Traditionally surveyors attend properties in person to inspect the land and buildings, but in recent times undertaking surveys in this way has become more challenging. The pandemic and lockdown and social distancing restrictions have forced surveyors to adopt new approaches and new technologies and one approach which has gained particular traction is the use of drones.

Drones have actually been used for many years by some organisations to conduct external inspections as they offer the benefits of cost efficiency, the accuracy and volume of the data they capture and health and safety. Network Rail deploys drones to inspect their railways and determine where repairs are required, Mitie has used drones to inspect the roofs of their properties for gull nests and Severn Trent Water has been using drones to inspect pipe bridges and survey reservoirs. All have said they value the drones' ability to access difficult to reach areas and keep their engineers out of harm's way. In fact, this is one of the key advantages of using drones in this manner, further examples of which can be found below:
•    Resource: Using drones reduces the number of people required to carry out a survey
•    Time: A drone can cover ground and record data much faster than any one person
•    Accessibility: Drones can be sent into inaccessible areas such as caves or structurally unstable buildings without putting human life at risk.
•    Convenience:  Drones can negate the need to install scaffolding which can take many weeks to erect, can require permissions from third parties and is expensive to install. They can also take the place of cherry pickers which are costly to hire.
•    Environmental Protection: Drones can be used to prevent environmental damage during a survey, for example in the case of a survey of underground pipes which they can conduct without disturbing the vegetation that lies above those pipes.

Virtual tours have already become more common place in the post pandemic residential market. Aerial imagery and marketing can add another new dimension to house purchases, particularly for overseas investors, allowing estate agents to capture the property from a range of different angles and giving the buyer a proper panoramic view of a property and its surroundings. So the wider use of drones would definitely have its advantages for estate agents and surveyors.

Compelling as all of the above is, however, there are still a number of barriers to overcome before this kind of usage becomes more mainstream. For one thing, drone technology is still in its infancy and the relevant regulatory and legislative framework surround it is still developing. At the moment, estate agents or surveyors seeking to use a drone must comply with complex regulation. At the most basic level, in order to operate a drone which weighs in excess of 250g, the pilot must have a flyer ID, the person responsible for the drone must have an operator ID and the drone itself must be labelled with that ID.

But that is just the start. Drone operations are regulated depending on the level of risk they pose and will fall into one of three categories. The second of these, the 'Specific Category', covers drones involved in medium-risk operations, and is likely to be the one most relevant to surveyors and estate agents. Among the requirements for drones operating in this category are authorisation from the CAA on the basis of a standardised risk assessment of a specific scenario. The CAA's authorisation will also require the drone operations to be compliant with a number of conditions. These will include, among others:
•    Ensuring that those piloting the drones are fit to fly and meet the necessary medical requirements for the category of operation they are engaged in
•    Ensuring they have proper insurance coverage for liability concerns such as mid-air collisions, property damage and injury to people on the ground
•    Ensuring the drone itself is airworthy, the requirements for which will vary depending on the intended use of the drone, and in some circumstances the design, production and maintenance of the drone must be certified

In addition, estate agents and surveyors must ensure they are fully conversant on regulations governing minimum distances of the drone from uninvolved individuals, vehicle and structures as well as operational limitations placed on flights within areas designated for residential, commercial, industrial or recreational purposes. And then of course there are those areas operating under airspace restrictions for both manned and unmanned aircraft which include large areas of Central London, the Royal Parks and areas within the vicinity of an aerodrome to name a few. (The Dronesafe website contains an interactive map of these restrictions for those who are interested.) For these areas the time and hassle of securing the appropriate authorisations and licenses may outweigh the benefits of a remote survey.
Estate agents and surveyors will also need to consider whether a drone needs to enter the private airspace of other landowners to access the space being surveyed. If so, those landowners' permissions will also need to be secured. Even if not, it is good practice to inform nearby occupiers that an inspection by drone will be carried out and what data will be gathered and for what purpose. This helps head off speculation that the drone is being used for more nefarious purposes. And they will need to take the weather into account as well - drones are not waterproof and neither do they stand up well to high winds.

While all of the above may sound a bit onerous, there are steps being taken to remove some of these obstacles. Currently a consortium of 16 entities, backed by funding from the UK Government's Future Flight Challenge, is developing a system that would enable drone flights to be monitored from a central control room i.e. allowing remote deployment of drones without a human operator on site. They are proposing the creation of drone corridors, in other words airspace pathways, where it would be deemed safe to fly drones outside of a pilot's visual line of sight. These corridors will, or course, be dependent upon securing permissions from the landowners, but this could be done as part of a longer term agreement. Additional technologies will need to be stablished, such as drone-specific air traffic control systems and detect and avoid hardware on the drones themselves,

The drones using them will then need to be fitted with detect and avoid capabilities and drone-specific air traffic control, radar and surveillance systems will need to be established, none of which will happen overnight, but assuming all of this can be made to work these corridors would significantly reduce the number of hoops estate agents and surveyors would need to jump through to reap the benefits of drone deployment.

Given the accelerating effect COVID has had on the development of new ways of doing business and the potential time and cost savings and risk reduction it is easy to understand why steps are being taken to bring forward the day when drones are just another run of the mill tool of the trade in the real estate sector. Those who work in the sector may want to start giving some serious thought now as to how they might employ these tools and how they can add value or risk being left behind.