By John Deans, Central Texas Drones
This article was originally published in the October/November 2016 issue of The Drones Magazine.
In our previous column we discussed how to land real estate aerial showcasing projects using specific marketing techniques. Today let’s get down to the nuts and bolts on how to actually execute a successful aerial at a rural property.
Before you can even get off the ground commercially, you will need either your legacy FAA 333 Exemption or your new Part 107 license. Do not try to earn from the air without one of these commercial certifications. Not only are you at risk of FAA fines, but also real estate clients will not even let you through their door.
It is absolutely critical to have the necessary tools to create the deliverables for the client. Owning a single drone for fun is one thing, but acquiring and maintaining a productive and reliable fleet of UAVs is quite another feat. Since two is one, and one can be none due to Murphy’s law, redundancy and backup systems on all levels are necessary to be able to pull off projects successfully every time.
At the top of your list will have to be a reliable aerial photographic platform. The minimum configuration should be a DJI Phantom 3 Professional (P3P) or an Inspire 1. After retiring my twin Phantom 2s months ago for a trio of Phantom 3 Pros, my stable of UAVs enable me to fly on a daily basis. On bright sunny days I may have three ranches to film and cannot afford to have a bird down without a backup one ready to take its place.My Inspire 1 is utilized during windy days, long range flight requirements or projects requiring speed and quick maneuvering. The vast majority of my aerial projects can be fulfilled by the lower cost P3Ps. This is why my UAV of choice is the P3P, along with over a dozen batteries that fit in a single travel case.
Included on my home office flight deck table are twin hub chargers from DJI that can charge four P3P batteries each in series. This helps me set up eight batteries to be charged without having to swap them out every forty minutes. I have a third DJI battery charger dedicated to charging my Remote Controller (RC) next to an Apple charger that juices up my iPad at the end of the day.
A typical 100-acre real estate aerial showcasing project requires four to eight batteries to completely film, so I have to recharge on the go if I’m doing multiple sites. Most newer vehicles have 120-volt power sockets which accommodate standard chargers, but with my older 2009 Jeep Wrangler 4-wheel drive, I only have two 12- volt power sockets. After blowing multiple fuses trying to charge P3P batteries, I had to find an alternate mobile charging solution. I came up with a separate large truck battery in the rear floorboard connected to an 800W transformer. I can plug twin P3P chargers into this transformer. To avoid the outgassing charging problem, I remove the big battery from the Jeep every evening and re-charge it overnight. This way I can recharge P3P batteries immediately after the first flight without having to worry about draining my Jeep’s primary battery.
TRANSPORTATION – 4WD IS A MUST
Speaking of transportation, I learned quite early that having a four wheel drive vehicle is mandatory for being a commercial drone pilot ﬁlming real estate in rural areas. I learned this the hard way after having my rancher clients pull my two-wheel drive SUV from their pastures on two diﬀerent occasions. I opted for a 2009 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited with aggressive mud tires for around $20,000. This enables me to have all my gear accessible and safe from the weather elements at all times. Plus, I am able to go anywhere on the property to launch my bird and be close to any location I need to ﬁlm.
I had ﬁrst considered utilizing my farm truck to haul my Polaris Ranger ATV. That plan had too many things that could go wrong, not to mention the hassle factor with a trailer and loading and unloading the ATV. It takes only one component to fail to mess up your aerial schedule for the day. Flat tires are a concern since now you have 12 tires (four on the truck, four on the trailer and four on the ATV) to consider instead of just four on a single vehicle like my Jeep. You also have to contend with trailer licensing issues, tail lights, gas and other mechanical problems that can crop up.
You cannot aerial ﬁlm large acreage si ing inside your vehicle. You’ve got to get out into the countryside and remotely launch the bird to get those shots. If you lack the right gear, it will be painfully apparent quickly.
I wear up to the knee, snake bite proof boots and thick blue jeans that keep the bugs oﬀ . Dressed in a long sleeve shirt to keep oﬀ the sun, I also have tactical web gear holding six P3P batteries in the empty AR-15 magazine pouches. On my back I have a three liter camelback hydration system that can hold another half dozen P3P batteries and quench my thirst on those multi-hour hikes.
This way if I have to hike across a river a signiﬁcant distance from the jeep, I have all the batteries I need to cover multiple hundred acre areas. Mounted on my web-gear, I also have a ﬁxed blade knife for possible sudden wild boar attacks and pepper spray to ward oﬀ mean ranch dogs. Having a Texas License to Carry, I also a pack a .45ACP handgun just in case I come across something worse. Strapped around my neck is my homemade shaded ﬂight deck that holds my iPad and Phantom controller securely. This enables me to keep my hands free to make marks on the map and other activities.
OK, now that you got an aerial gig and all the gear required for it, take time to prep the night before to make sure you have all your ducks in a row.
First of all, you have to know where the place is located. Some ranches will not have a formal address, just a number on a county road. I prefer to have the realtor who is hiring me send a KMZ ﬁle from Google Earth that includes the property’s perimeter line. This accomplishes two goals: you know exactly where the property is and your local Google Earth iPhone app can utilize the KMZ during the ﬁlming so you know where you are on the property.
Using Google Earth the night before, establish a landmark or intersection that will correlate with the GPS or navigational app you will be using to get to that location. In other words, make sure you know how to get to the ranch before you leave your home or oﬃce.
Also, using Google Earth, you will be able to see the positive features of the property to highlight with your drone photography. Look for infrastructure improvements like houses, pools, barns and riding arenas, along with property features such as ponds, streams, rivers and cliﬀ s. Print out a hardcopy ﬂight plan map on a single page with that property line in a contrasting color. Use a silver Sharpie to circle your proposed areas of interest beforehand so you can plan out your ground route travel.
Get everything charged and all packed up in your vehicle the night before. Check the weather for that location with an app such as UAV Forecast to verify you will not have excessive winds, strong chance of rain or overcast skies. Take two drones and multiple SD cards for redundancy.
Give yourself plenty of time to get there and keep the client apprised of your travel progress. Upon arrival seek out the property owner if they are at home and introduce yourself to put them at ease with your presence on their property. It is also a good idea to show them your ﬂight plan map with the areas of interest circled and ask them if there are any other neat areas of their ranch that you could highlight from the sky.
Now begin the ﬂight maneuvers to capture the scenes you had planned of all the positive aspects. Try to mix things up by capturing riser shots, vertical descents and left to right alternating sweeps to provide numerous views of each element.
Silky smooth and slow transitions are essential to real estate aerial video. The primary video format I utilize is MOV format at 60 frames per second with 1080p resolution. Since the vast majority of real estate aerial videos are watched on YouTube or Vimeo in less than 2K resolution, I ﬁnd it too cumbersome to ﬁ lm in 4K resolution. Native 1080p tends to stay smoother when my ﬁnal MP4 formatted video is still in 1080p delivered to the client after post processing. However, I do plan to migrate to 4K when clients have the common ability to view at 4K resolution on computer monitors, TVs and tablets.
Record video in 10 to 20-second segments and make multiple takes of each element of the property. If you are doing a back, up and away shot of a beautiful lake, you will want to do it twice just in case the ﬁrst ﬂight caught a buﬀet of wind and shook the gimbal enough to be a distraction in the video. Also, in between video takes, have the drone take a couple of snapshots of each property aspect to provide the client at least 50 high resolution photos along with the post production video.
At the end of the project verify you have covered all the areas of interest circled on your ﬂight plan map by checking them oﬀ with your silver pen. Pack away all of your gear and say goodbye to the property owner. If nobody was home during your visit, it is a good idea to take a picture of the gate on the way out so you have proof it was closed when you left.
If you have another property to ﬂy next, I strongly recommend you swap out MicroSD cards or copy of all video and photos to a laptop for safekeeping. If something goes wrong with your bird at the next site, you sure do not want to lose the job you just shot with all the media on that same card.
HOME OFFICE POST PROCESSING
Download all media to your video editing workstation immediately upon arrival at your home while all is fresh in your mind. This is critical if you were at multiple sites in one day.
Next, start going through each video ﬁle by renaming it to the scene that is depicted to help you with the culling and editing process. Your goal is to come up with about 15 to 20 scenes that are ﬁve to eight seconds in duration each that you can string together and tell the story of the positive property aspects. The length of the video should be between one and three minutes. Usually the shorter, the better, due to everyone’s short attention span. The goal is to make the real estate agent’s phone ring with interested potential buyers.
Utilize smooth transition techniques between scenes and have some nice copyright-free music playing in the background. I suggest 30 frames per second MP4/NTSC format as a ﬁnal video deliverable. Make sure you test your video on PC, Mac, tablet and smart TVs to verify smoothness and resolution.
Work the realtor’s logo and contact information into the video along with your aerial service information at the ending credits. Make a second copy of the video stripping out all contact information and Logos for a sanitized version to put on MLS and other sites that forbid that type of marketing content.
Finally, package both videos and the folder with the 50+ high resolution photos you shot and copy them to a USB drive you can hand deliver to the client. I strongly recommend having the client view your ﬁrst aerial video from the USB drive on a nice computer monitor rather than on YouTube with poor resolution, which could give them a bad ﬁrst impression of your work. For future projects you can deliver aerial media through DropBox.com via downloads. Just make sure they fully download the MP4s completely before viewing them.
ADD-ONS AND REVISIONS
Clients may want less of some scenes and more of others depending on how picky they are. I will do a second edit version free of charge, but the third or fourth may cost them. I also oﬀer voiceovers for an extra $100 if the real estate agent provides a script.
Recently I have been adding a time lapse scene at the end just to be unique. Also I have been utilizing the handheld DJI Osmo to get aerial like shots on porches and sometimes indoors which I then blend into the outside aerial projects. I’m able to achieve the drone-like smoothness by riding a Hoverboard while ﬁlming with the Osmo.
COLLECTIONS – GET PAID
I collect money only after I have delivered a successful aerial video to a satisﬁ ed client. That is why I like to hand over in person the ﬁrst aerial video to a new client. That way I can give him/her the invoice right after he/ she tells me how much they love it. From that point on I deliver a hardcopy invoice inside the envelope containing the USB drive or a PDF copy of the invoice within the e-mail containing the DropBox link.
Give the real estate agent a week or two to pay you before fussing at them for money. I have not had any problems in accounts receivable with my drone business.
Being an IT guy in my mid-50s, this is the most enjoyable job I’ve ever had. With the FAA Part 107 rule taking eﬀect, I’m sure I will have a lot more competition soon, but with an established client base and a proven aerial production system, commercial drone pilots like me will do just ﬁne in this awesome new industry!