Real estate companies flying high with drones
Dwight Harriman —
Thursday, August 30, 2018

This photo provided by the Montana Drone Company shows a drone’s-eye view of the Cokedale Road property Dallas Fischer’s drone was photographing, recently.

Enterprise photo by Dwight Harriman

Drone pilot Dallas Fischer, owner of Montana Drone Company, controls his craft while photographing a property on Cokedale Road for a local real estate company, recently.

Dallas Fischer shows the controls for piloting his drone, which include joysticks and a smartphone. The drone is pictured on top of its carrying case in the background.

Drone pilot Dallas Fischer gently joysticks his drone off the ground and sends it high into the air over a property on Cokedale Road he is photographing on a recent sunny, breezy afternoon.

Then he parks the drone in mid-air, where it stands stock still despite the wind that wants to force it elsewhere, its camera steady, held in position by a high-tech gimbal, as Fischer demonstrates the new high-flying way for real estate agents to market property: drones.

“The new frontier of cool video shots is through drones,” said Fischer, the Bozeman-based owner of the Montana Drone Company, on how drones have taken the place of GoPro cameras for high-quality outdoor photography.

Fischer said he is in Park County every other week doing contract work for real estate agents, mostly shooting ranches.

Before drones, the only way to get aerial shots was through helicopters, but, as Fischer noted, “helicopters are expensive.”

Now, drone pilots like himself provide a much more affordable way for real estate agents to give clients a, well, higher view of things, with either video or still shots.

Marketing tool

“I think it’s just a really efficient way to provide an overall view of property for consumers,” said Signe Lahren, a Livingston broker with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Montana Properties who is handling the Cokedale Road property, a 25-acre horse boarding and training facility with multiple pastures, paddocks and shelters.

Like all the local real estate agents interviewed for this story, Lahren contracts out the drone work. She works with Aaron Burnett of Montana Home Photos, who takes still shots of the interior and exterior of a property, and who in turn subcontracted Fischer for the aerial photography on Cokedale Road.

Lahren said the only way to fully capture such properties, with its many outbuildings and varied topography, was with drone photography.

“People can get a better sense of the overall area,” she said, adding she once marketed a property that had everything from rivers to hills, coulees and ridges where a drone was absolutely necessary for showing it.

“Some people … can’t even walk that kind of property,” she said.

Lahren said drone imagery is essential when potential buyers are checking out properties online — from all over the world.

Bruce Lay, a local broker with Maverick Realty who also contracts drone work, said drone photography “just makes your account 100 percent.”

“If you can add a drone, that just gives it one more exposure point for your client,” he said. “It’s a great marketing tool.”

When you employ beautiful drone footage, such as when a drone starts far away from the property and then flies in, showing the view along the way, “it’s like art — it’s a piece of artwork,” Lay said.

All about drones

Fischer’s drone, a $2,000 DJI Phantom 4 Advanced, is loaded. Not with weight — it tips the scales at only 3.2 pounds and is roughly a mere 12 inches wide — but with technology.

For starters, it carries a 12-megapixel camera and can shoot video in ultra-high 4K definition. A critical component of the camera gear is the gimbal that holds it completely steady even though the drone is moving. Another critical function is flight-correcting technology that keeps the entire craft stable, automatically tilting it into the wind to hold it at a certain spot in the air.

In Park County, “you gotta fly in some wind,” Fischer chuckled.

The four propellers — powered by a battery that provides 24 minutes of flying time — can take the nimble craft 3 miles away. However, Fischer can’t push it that far because his Federal Aviation Administration license requires he keep it within view.

If the battery starts to run out, the drone will lower itself automatically to ground before it is drained.

Fischer believes his particular drone model could climb as high as 1,500 feet, but the FFA restricts drones to 400 feet.

Fischer’s drone shows what it’s looking at by sending a video image to a smartphone mounted on the control panel that contains the joy sticks. The phone uses wifi to communicate with the drone.

Fischer can also use the smartphone to plot a flight path for the drone so it will follow it automatically. While a phone can control some functions, most of the actual flying is done with joysticks.

There are two skills that make a good drone pilot, Fischer said: First — not surprisingly — is being good at video games. But that’s not all it takes. You also have to understand photographic composition, he said.

Given the nature of the property on Cokedale Road, you couldn’t capture it all on the ground, but with a drone, “I can get you that in five minutes,” he said.

Fischer said all drone operators must have an FAA license if the drone is used for commercial purposes — even if business owners operate one for their own business.

Drone hobbyists, on the other hand, don’t need a license but they do have to register their craft with the FAA if it weighs over half a pound, Fischer said. Once registered, the operator’s name is connected with that drone.

‘An integral part of our business’

Jon Ellen Snyder, a broker with ERA Landmark Real Estate in Livingston, likes what drones can do for her.

“It’s just a very scenic way to post a property,” Snyder said, adding they are handy for large pieces of real estate.

She said it can cost anywhere from $500 to $2,000 to photograph a property with a drone, depending on what you need it to do.

Echoing other real estate agents, she said the video a drone produces allows someone to see the entire property without walking it.

“In the luxury market, it is expected,” Snyder said of drone footage, adding that typically, drones aren’t used for a house on a small lot.

“I don’t think it’s a fad,” she said. “I think it’s become an integral part of our business. Both buyers and sellers expect that service.”

She noted drone images are especially helpful for potential buyers from out of state, who can’t easily visit a property.

Gillian Swanson, another broker at ERA Landmark, said she thinks she was one of the first people in Park County to use drones for real estate.

“It just seemed to me to be the perfect selling tool, especially for properties out of town,” Swanson said. “I’ve used it extensively in Paradise Valley.”

Swanson pointed out that drone videos have to be short — under two minutes — because of peoples’ short attention span these days.

Lay noted the same thing. If you go over one and half minutes, “you start to lose people,” he said.

“It gives the customer … more of an opportunity to see the full viewshed,” said Marcie Hertz, a Livingston broker with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Montana Properties.

“It’s the newest technology to feature the properties,” Hertz said. “The buyers, they love it.”