How can drones be used when purchasing a property?
“Real estate cannot be lost or stolen, nor can it be carried away. Purchased with common sense, paid for in full, and managed with reasonable care, it is about the safest investment in the world.” (Franklin D. Roosevelt)
Experienced property investors will understand the requirement for and value due diligence when purchasing a property. In England and Wales, the principle of caveat emptor applies i.e. buyer beware.
For this reason, buyers will normally instruct solicitors to investigate title to the property and surveyors to appraise and value the property. The goal is to understand any existing or potential liabilities and any risks associated with property ownership.
In carrying out a survey, a surveyor will attend the property to inspect the land and buildings. In the last year, with the pandemic and the lockdown restrictions, undertaking the normal surveys has proved rather challenging for property investors. So, is there another way? Could a drone replace the surveyor?
How is the drone currently being used?
It is worth considering firstly how drones are presently being used in the property sector, which in recent years has become widespread. A number of organisations have been successfully using drones for many years to conduct external inspections of property. Not only do drones offer cost efficiency, but they are incredibly accurate at capturing large volumes of data which would ordinarily take up huge resource and time.
With a vast infrastructure to manage, Network Rail successfully deploys drones to inspect their railways to determine where repairs are required. They aim to detect and avoid faults to prevent there being passenger delays on their railway lines. Drones not only enable them to reach hard to access areas but also ensure safety and wellbeing of their engineers who are able to monitor and inspect the infrastructure without being on the tracks.
When it comes to managing properties, we have seen from the trials adopted by Mitie that they are able to access those hard-to-reach places. The drone technology was effective in inspecting roofs for gull nests and Mitie have now extended their use to carrying out inspections for building damage including identifying where heat might be leaking from a building, surveying the property for security purposes and aerial mapping for landscaping services. Similarly, Severn Trent Water have been using drones for many years to save costs and reach those unusually inaccessible places. Currently, the water company use drones to inspect pipe bridges, to survey reservoirs, and for 3D mapping. Leaks can be detected by strapping remote sensing cameras to the drone which records images in different spectral bands. Once interpreted, these images will reveal the source of any leak. Severn Trent Water are said to have saved £750,000 in their first year of using drones.
There is also the security aspect and the ability to monitor sites more efficiently. Across the Irish Sea, a number of local councils are using drones to visit known fly-tipping areas. More sites can be covered in a single day by drone, than would otherwise have been the case when using traditional inspection methods. As such, the inspections for fly-tipping can be carried out more regularly. Some councils are also using drones to inspect the integrity of cladding on buildings which they own. This is particularly beneficial in respect of high rise buildings, where scaffolding would otherwise need to be erected at vast cost to the council.
The use case for drones
From the above examples of how the technology is currently being used in industry, there are a number of immediate advantages:
- Safety: The safety aspect is particularly attractive to employers as they are better able to manage health & safety risks of their workforce who need to access areas that would ordinarily pose danger.
- Resources: To reduce the number of people required to carry out a survey.
- Time: To reduce the time that one person spends carrying out a survey. A drone can cover ground and record data much faster than any one person.
- Accessibility: To access areas which would be inaccessible to people. For example, a drone can be sent into caves or into structurally unstable buildings, without fear to human life.
- Convenience: To avoid installing scaffolding or using a cherry picker. Drones can inspect areas that would normally only be accessible by using scaffolding or a cherry picker. Scaffolding can take many weeks to erect, can require permissions of third parties and is expensive to install and hire. Cherry pickers are also costly to hire.
- Protection: To protect vegetation being damaged. A drone can survey pipes underneath the ground, without disturbing the vegetation above those pipes. Traditional methods of surveying pipes usually results in some damage to the vegetation above the pipes.
What does this mean for the property sector?
Drone technology is still in its infancy and the regulatory and legislative framework around how this technology will be advanced and used, is still developing. As a result, there are a number of obstacles for those wishing to use drones as a tool in their toolbox, but what does this mean for the property sector and will it change the way we purchase real estate?
If we take the limitations first, regulation would be top of the list. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) regulates the safe use and operation of drones. If an estate agent or surveyor wants to use a drone, he or she will need to ensure they comply with complex regulation. At a very basic level to operate a drone weighing over 250g, they must ensure that the pilot has a flyer ID, that the person responsible for the drone has an operator ID and that the drone is labelled with the operator ID. It is illegal to fly a drone without complying with these provisions. As from 31 December 2020, the UK drone regulations changed to align with those of the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).
Drone operations are regulated in a manner consistent with the level of risk that they pose and will fall into one of three categories:
- Open Category – Drones in this category present a low risk to third parties. Drones which operate within the limitations of this category will not require CAA authorisation. These limitations include: (a) a maximum take-off / flying weight of 25kg; (b) save in specific circumstances, the drone must remain in the visual line of sight of the pilot; and (c) the drone must be within 120 metres of the ground. There are further rules concerned with how close the drone can be to uninvolved people. The more harmless the drone to a person, the closer it can be to people.
- Specific Category – This category is for drones involved in medium-risk operations. The drone operator will need authorisation from the CAA on the basis of a standardised risk assessment or a specific scenario. The CAA’s authorisation will require the drone operation to be compliant with a number of conditions.
- Certified Category – This category is for high-risk drone operations. For example, a drone carrying a dangerous good, where if an accident occurred there would be serious harm to a third party, would fall within this category. Drone operations are seen as presenting an equivalent risk to that of manned aviation. As such, traditional aviation rules relating to the airworthiness, operation and licensing of aircraft will apply to drones operating in this manner. That being said, UK regulations are being developed for this category of operation.
Whilst not all commercial operations require an authorisation from the CAA, it is important to remember that if you operate drones in the Specific category, and this may include many commercial operators such as surveyors and estate agents, you must first obtain authorisation from the CAA.
Surveyors and estate agents will also need to ensure that those piloting their drones are fit to fly; are not under the influence of narcotics; and have met the necessary medical requirements for the category of operation being undertaken. Drone operators will also be responsible for ensuring they have proper insurance coverage. Drones raise a number of liability issues such as mid-air collisions, damage to property and people on the ground. Estate agents and surveyors will need to work alongside their insurers to safeguard against these liability concerns. It is worth pointing out that the CAA has a reporting requirement where accidents have occurred in prescribed circumstances. It may be necessary to report the accident to one or both of the Air Accidents Investigation Branch and the CAA.
Drone operators will need to ensure the airworthiness of their drone. The requirements differ with the intended use of the drone. Estate agents and surveyors will need to familiarise themselves with the CAA requirements and in some circumstances, the design, production and maintenance of the drone must be certified.
As part of the risk assessment of flying, distance from uninvolved people, vehicles, vessels and structures will be a key factor. The CAA sets out minimum distances that must be kept by the drone. There are also additional operational limitations placed on flights within areas that are used for residential, commercial, industrial, or recreational purposes. It may be that specific authorisation is required from the CAA before the drone can take flight. Estate agents and surveyors must ensure they are fully conversant on the specific requirements required by the regulations.
Another significant limitation of widespread use in the property purchasing sphere is the number of airspace restrictions across the UK which apply to both manned and unmanned aircraft. The Dronesafe website contains an interactive map of the air restrictions. Unsurprisingly, Central London has large areas which are restricted; for example, the Royal Parks, the City of London, the Isle of Dogs and those areas within the vicinity of an aerodrome. Estate agents and surveyors will need to check whether the property is within these restricted zones. If they are, they will require authorisations and licences, but obtaining these will take time and it may be far simpler for an estate agent or surveyor to visit the property in the usual way.
Estate Agents and surveyors must also familiarise themselves with the boundaries of their client’s land. Following judgements in 1870 and 1975, it is established law that a landowner owns the airspace above his home, but only so far as the ordinary use and enjoyment of the land and structures upon it. A drone flying at low levels will likely fly within privately owned airspace. Whilst, consent from the landowner instructing the survey of its land is likely implied, if the drone needs access to neighbouring land to carry out its inspection, then those neighbouring landowners will need to consent to the drone operation.
There can be some negative public perception about drones which have not been eased by nefarious activities such as surveillance and cyber-security risks. It is therefore best practice for estate agents and surveyors to inform the nearby occupiers that they are carrying out an inspection by drone. It is worth letting them know what data will be gathered and how this will be used.
In addition to the above regulatory and permission considerations, there are also practical matters related to the operation that must be taken into account, such as weather. Drones are not waterproof and neither will they stand up against inclement weather conditions. Estate agents and surveyors will need to determine good drone operating conditions which means they will be beholden to the British weather.
Data transfer and storage is another practical matter to consider. A drone can collect more data in the same time period than a person. Following a drone survey there is therefore likely to be a large amount of data. This data needs to be stored and transferred. The estate agents and surveyors holding this data will need to make sure they have sufficient electronic storage capacity and that their data connections are fast enough to ensure its swift transfer. Where information on the building is sensitive, the relevant organisations will need to ensure that the data is properly encrypted and stored securely.
The future of drones
Currently, a drone operator is required to attend a site to fly the drone which gathers the necessary data. However, in the future, it may be possible to remotely deploy a drone to carry out an inspection without a human operator on site.
A consortium of 16 entities, backed by funding from the UK Government’s Future Flight Challenge, is putting together a system to enable drone flights to be monitored from a central control room.
If the estate agent / surveyor is not required to carry out the property inspection, they will likely be able to produce more surveys in the same time period. This is because they will save time gathering data and travelling to and from site. Instead, their role will be reduced to interpreting the data which has been gathered by the drone.
If the consortium is successful, drone corridors will need to be established where it is deemed safe to fly drones outside of a pilot’s visual line of sight. The landowners within these drone corridors will need to have consented to flight over their land. Drones will need to be fitted with detect and avoid capabilities and radar and surveillance technologies and a drone specific air traffic control system will need to be established. We are therefore some way off drones independently carrying out property inspections.
In summary, for estate agents and surveyors who deploy drones in surveying a property, there may be time and cost savings. However, these savings do need to be balanced against the regulatory framework of operating a drone.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created an environment where estate agents and surveyors have had to think creatively about how to assist purchasers.
The aerial imagery and marketing add a new dimension to house buying. Estate agents are able capture the property from a range of different angles giving the buyer a panoramic view of the property and its surroundings. This is very useful for overseas investors or where purchasers are unable to travel. However, for onshore buyers, nothing will really replace those deep visceral connections between a person and new home which can only be made through physical viewings.
In the commercial setting, the ability to survey a high rise building without installing scaffolding or hiring a cherry picker is extremely attractive. The time and cost savings are tremendous. The ability to inspect dangerous areas without putting individual in harm’s way is priceless. This, together, with the ability to cover large ground extremely quickly, puts drones firmly in the frame for a large number of operations.
This article was first published in Property Law Journal 385 (March 2021) and is also available on lawjournals.co.uk.