While pictures may be worth a thousand words, drone footage is practically making ordinary camera images seem antiquated.

Drones are redefining real estate videos by flying through houses. They are saving lives by reducing the time for search and rescues. They document capital improvement projects in ways standing on the ground with a traditional camera can’t. For some businesses they are saving time and money.

While the use of drones goes back to World War I, these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have come into their own in the last few years as the applications for them continue to grow.

“I think the future for drone photography is limitless. I think we are in the embryotic stages for what we can use it for,” Valerie Walston with the Napa Valley Transportation Authority Walston said. “When I first started looking for a drone photographer it was not easy to find one because most were focused on real estate and agriculture. I needed to find someone focused on construction.”

As the marketing and information specialist for the county transit agency, Walston is tasked with figuring out the best way to showcase infrastructure improvements from beginning to mid-construction to completion.

“These are projects that have three dimensional stories to tell. Without drone video, we would lack that important element,” Walston said. “Everyone appreciates the story being told in ways I cannot with a camera on the ground.”

Jake Bowman, founder and pilot of Napa-based Flutter Shot Media, uses drones in his work in a variety of ways. (Image: Jake Bowman)

Expanding drone uses

Jake Bowman, founder and pilot of Napa-based Flutter Shot Media, has traveled all over the state to help Bob Peralta document fire damage.

For years, Peralta of Bob Peralta Arbor Consulting in Napa walked endless miles to appraise the condition of trees following wildfires. The firm’s clients are often attorneys and insurance companies.

“I take his images and am able to do my work instead of walking 80 to 100 acres. This has only come about in the last couple years,” Peralta said. “It definitely changes my work. (Jake) has taken me out of the field. It saves me time. It’s probably changed 40%of the way we collect data. It’s pretty remarkable.”

What Peralta likes is that Bowman does not merely do a flyover. The flying cameras can zero in on fences, sewer lines, and septic systems.

Bowman creates an orthomosaic image, which is done by stitching together photos to create a seamless, larger detailed image.

“So, now when I’m in a meeting we incorporate ‘Do we need drone on it?’” Peralta explained. “I worked on the (2017) Tubbs Fire (in Sonoma County) and spent a ton of time in Paradise (after the 2018 Camp Fire), but didn’t have these tools back then and they would have been helpful.”

Drone use isn’t limited to things on land. Fishermen are also finding uses for them.

The Fisherman’s Marketing Association of Bodega Bay enlisted Jim Nevill Productions of Bodega to create a 10-minute video to educate people about Assembly Bill 534, the 2021 legislation that would have mandated ropeless fishing gear among other things.

In one day, drones swooped over 10 locations, mostly in the Bodega Bay area. Shots were preplanned to get sunrise and sunset images, the abundance of boats in the harbor, fisherman out at sea; all shown as the narrator tells the fishermen’s side of the story.

For law enforcement, drones are able to replace helicopters. They are quicker to deploy, go places helicopters can’t, and the expense of charging a battery is negligible compared to jet fuel.

Marin County sheriff’s deputies deployed one of their 11 drones in January to assess the flood damage along Highway 37. This was at the request of Caltrans and fire officials. Such mutual aid agreements are common.

Marin County Sheriff’s Office has been using drones since 2018, with the department having created a specific drone team. It was the first law enforcement agency in the county to create a UAV program.

Since the inception of the drone program, the sheriff’s office has acquired drones that are small enough to fly indoors. They would be used to fly inside buildings in which someone has taken hostages or has barricaded themselves.

“If a person can’t go in somewhere, we would not send a drone in there,” Sgt. Brenton Schneider, who runs the drone team, said.

Some drones have loudspeakers and spotlights attached to them. Other drones have infrared tools.

“Because our drones have thermal capabilities we are able to detect hot spots for the fire department,” Schneider said. “In the (2020) Woodward Fire we utilized a drone to get a look at how big the fire was. We could see where they could send resources. Anything we could do from a helicopter we could do from a drone.”

The thermal device is perfect when looking for lost hikers or even missing persons. Drones can cover a larger swath of land faster than people, so they are a vital tool in search and rescue missions.

Another marketing tool

Indoor footage is becoming more popular and almost the norm when it comes to real estate listings.

If you want to be a good agent for sellers, you need to add value and bring people in and I think drone video is a huge asset,” Dylon Baker, owner and Realtor at Baker Estates in Vacaville, said. “When it comes time to market a property its three-pronged: still photos showcase the house itself, your drone video that is a teaser trailer, and using drone video through the house on social media and other websites.”

Bowman, the drone pilot who shoots charred trees, spends 90% of his time on real estate work, with Baker being one of his clients.

He has specifically rigged the drones that he uses to fly indoors. The key he said is to have flawless video, so it’s like a person is walking through the home, not getting stuck somewhere—which can happen if a pilot isn’t well versed at his craft.

Randy Knight, who owns 5StarVR.com in Sebastopol, also needs to market real estate in an appealing matter. For him, it’s luring people to his vacation rentals.

Sometimes Knight does his own shoots, other times he hires people. He said the first drone he bought about seven years ago cost $1,700. The wind took it and it was never seen again. The last one he bought at Costco for about $400.

“The picture quality is incredible, it’s easy to use, small and compact,” Knight said. “It’s a wonderful thing to have. It displays properties in the best possible light. Photos say so much more than words in the world of vacation rentals.”

Note: A version of this story first appeared in the North Bay Business Journal.

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