Michael Jones of Goldsboro, North Carolina, started a side job shooting drone photos and videos for realtors. Before long, he realized that his clients wanted more: Images with property lines on them, to better understand where their fences should be placed. But after two years of steady business, Jones was slapped by the state of North Carolina with an order that grounded his drone. It even threatened criminal prosecution for surveying without a license. He’s not the only drone pilot coming into conflict with regulations designed to protect surveying professionals.
Jones had added a careful disclaimer to his work: His maps weren’t meant to replace the proper surveys that are often needed for legalities such as mortgages, title insurance, and land use applications. He sued last month, accusing the board of violating his First Amendment rights. “I would just like to have the right back to fly,” he says. “I myself don’t feel like I’m offering any surveying, and more or less, I’m telling people this is not accurate mapping. This is only for visual, and all of my clients understood it.” Jones has abandoned drone mapping––for now.
Dividing parcels of land is as old as ancient history. In the Old Testament book of Ezekiel, land is carefully divided for the tribes of Israel. Ezekiel 48:29 says, “This is the land that you shall allot as an inheritance among the tribes of Israel, and these are their portions, declares the Lord God.”
Licensed surveyors have their “boots on the ground” when it comes to land mapping. Drones, on the other hand, are “eyes in the sky,” capturing data much faster than surveyors can on foot. Drones make it possible to complete more jobs in less time. Clients expect property surveys to be accurate, fast, and affordable, regardless of how the survey is completed.
For now, surveyors need Federal Aviation Administration approval to professionally fly drones themselves. And drone operators need to pass state licensing exams to produce legal surveys. But Kurt Carraway, executive director of the Applied Aviation Research Center at Kansas State University, says licensing boards should do more to embrace partnerships between surveyors and drone operators.
Walter Lappert founded two drone-manufacturing companies. He understands the board’s desire to protect an industry that has consistently been undercut by unlicensed drone operators. As a compromise, Lappert partners as a sub-contractor with engineering firms or surveying companies.