His Drone Took Property Pics. Surveyors Didn't Like That

Man running business capturing land images for realtors sues after NC grounds his drone
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Apr 26, 2021 7:12 AM CDT
Unlikely Feud: Land Surveyors Vs. Drone Operators
Michael Jones operates his drone in Goldsboro, NC, on April 2, 2021.   (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

When Michael Jones started a side hustle shooting drone photos and videos for real estate agents, his clients wanted more images with property lines on them, to better understand where their fences should be. It seemed like a good use of emerging technology that met an obvious consumer demand, and Jones was careful to add a disclaimer: His maps weren't meant to replace the proper surveys often needed for such things as mortgages, title insurance, and land use applications. But after two years of steady business, Jones was slapped by the state of North Carolina in 2018 with an order grounding his drone. The Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors said he faced criminal prosecution for surveying without a license. Eager to deploy a technology that's disrupting the staid practice of surveying nationwide, Jones, 44, of Goldsboro, sued last month, accusing the board of violating his First Amendment rights, per the AP.

Jones is one of many drone pilots coming into conflict with regulations designed to protect surveying professionals, whose exclusive roles are being disrupted now that it's possible to nearly precisely combine line drawings with images to better resolve property disputes. The challenge goes both ways: Surveyors would need FAA approval to professionally fly drones, and drone operators would need to pass state licensing exams to produce legal surveys. Neither side wants to take on the training and expense. Jones' suit represents the cutting edge of this coming disruption, per David Benowitz, head of research at DroneAnalyst. "Drones have really changed the game in surveying," Benowitz says. Jones says he couldn't afford a lawyer, so he abandoned drone mapping, resulting in over $10,000 in lost business. This January, a law firm offered to represent him. "I would just like to have the right back to fly," he says. The board says it will file a formal response to the lawsuit.

(Read more drones stories.)

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