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Wild Wild West of Drones

Drones that photograph real estate projects are invading S.F. skies. Right now it's a bit of a free-for-all, while the FAA decides how to regulate 'em. (We advise being nice, since they'll one day control us all.) We caught up with one of the men behind the controls.

The industry is so new that Aerovision Pro's Stephen Wheatcraft, middle, with business partners Catherine Benton and Richard Atkinson are three of only 20 licensed drone operators in California. (So if someone in California tries to pick you up at a bar by saying they operate drones, they're probably lying.) Here the crew's about to take marketing pics of The San Francisco Shipyard next to the 49ers stadium. Aerovision also uses drones for contractor documentation, or snapping time-lapse pics to make sure workers are keeping deadlines. (That's a Dji S1000 octocopter, which Steve is carefully setting up for takeoff, below. Including camera, it has a $17,000 price tag.)

Last fall, Steve translated his pro landscape photography background into a full-blown drone biz (he prefers the term "flying camera"), and he's been back and forth from his home base in Reno to shoot a bevy of Bay Area and NorCal projects over the past month. In addition to The San Francisco Shipyard (in that case, Concrete North hired him), he's hovered over Walmart sites in Galt and Elk Grove; a Target in Santa Rosa; and a few schools, including Folsom Lake College and Mountain House High School and an elementary school, both in Tracy. In a few weeks he'll be in Lake Tahoe to shoot some impressive McMansion estates from above.

The demand for operators is definitely brewing. Lawyers like S.F. Hanson Bridgett partner Steven Miller—who's personally looking forward to the possibility of burrito bombers—is seeing developers deploy drones to give future residents or tenants sneak peeks of high-up views during construction, and landlords are even using them to spy on tenants (clearly to learn how to make passable banana bread); that's where his expertise comes in. While the FAA won't rule on the nationwide usage of drones until next year, this month, the FAA issued its first-ever permit to let one fly over US soil (BP got it to do Alaskan surveys).