RALEIGH, N.C. – When Michael Jones started a side hustle shooting drone photos and videos for realtors, 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 that are 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 that grounded 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 sued last month, accusing the board of violating his First Amendment rights.
“I would just like to have the right back to fly,” Jones said. “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 that.”
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.
Jones’ lawsuit represents the cutting edge of this coming disruption, according to David Benowitz, head of research at Drone Analyst and a former employee at DJI, the world's largest commercial drone manufacturer. “This has been rumored about and talked about for years now. Drones have really changed the game in surveying.”
The challenge goes both ways: Surveyors would need Federal Aviation Administration 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 expenses.
But Kurt Carraway, executive director of the Applied Aviation Research Center at Kansas State University, said licensing boards should do more to embrace partnerships by researching the accuracy of drone mapping and encouraging the use of drones, particularly in places where a surveyor can't safely do the work.
"I would think that with the continued development of technologies and positional accuracy that it's likely that drone data can be captured in a way that is compliant with those surveying standards,” Carraway said.
A final notice Jones got from the board in 2019 ordered him to stop engaging in “mapping, surveying and photogrammetry, stating accuracy, providing location and dimension data and producing orthomosaic maps, quantities and topographic information.”
The board declined to comment to The Associated Press, but said it will file a formal response to the lawsuit.
Jones, 44, of Goldsboro, said he couldn't afford a lawyer, so he abandoned drone mapping, resulting in over $10,000 in lost business. This January, a libertarian law firm offered to represent him.
Sam Gedge, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, plans to argue that Jones has the right to freedom of speech by taking photos and videos and producing artwork for clients. He's seen similar disputes in Mississippi, Oregon and California.
In the Mississippi case, the Virginia-based law firm reached a settlement in December that allows Vizaline, a real estate analytics firm accused of performing unlicensed surveying, to use public data to draw property lines on satellite photos.
“Many states have enforced their laws in a way that is under the radar,” Gedge said. “They just send warning letters to people ... and for most people who receive that letter, as Michael did, you’re gonna knock it off because nobody wants to be the target of a government enforcement proceeding.”
Walter Lappert, a 35-year-old Tampa, Florida, resident, founded two drone-manufacturing companies that now partner with engineers to provide mapping services, Triad Drones and Charlotte UAV. He said he lost out on a good chunk of a $300,000 Charlotte-area government contract because surveyors objected to his drones.
Lappert said he understands the board’s desire to protect an industry that has consistently been undercut in recent years by unlicensed drone operators who can do a less-than-accurate job for substantially less money. “Inexperienced people are going out and taking jobs and sub-par delivering on what the actual technology can do,” he said.
He's compromised by partnering as a sub-contractor with engineering firms or surveying companies, but he'd like to do the work on his own.
“Service work is the best bang for the buck,” Lappert said. “I can go out in one day and make $25,000 doing service work versus it might take me three months to sell a $100,000 drone.”
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Anderson is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.