Think of them as mobile closed-circuit television systems (CCTV).
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, aka “drones”) can serve as the extended eyes and ears, even the nose and heat-sensitive skin, of property managers.
Now available in small sizes, even as toys, aerial drones are capable of carrying cameras and listening devices, as well as equipment capable of detecting gas leaks, heat build-up, and other indications of danger.
Operating faster and more economically than human security and maintenance staff, drones can enhance personal security by providing constant vigilance for intruders, wild or stray animals, downed power lines, and other hazards, as well as detecting persons felled by injury or illness.
Along the same line, drones can conduct around-the-clock inspections of the property, detecting fires, water leaks, roof damage, and other evidence of physical damage. In this capacity, drones can access spaces that are very small or out of reach, quickly conducting inspections that would be hazardous and time-consuming for humans acting alone.
Drones can be especially effective in helping to monitor large property complexes, where they would supplement CCTV, electronic monitoring, and human security and maintenance staff.
As of August 2016, the use of aerial drones for commercial purposes is now legal under guidelines issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Generally speaking, companies can now operate aerial drones provided the UAVs weigh less than 55 pounds (including equipment and cargo), stay below 400 feet in the air, and remain with the visual line of sight of a licensed operator.
Other restrictions apply, as well, including one that drones cannot fly over people unless they are under some sort of shelter. That could be problematic for use in monitoring real estate complexes, but users can apply for waivers from certain FAA rules. To secure a waiver, one would have to show the necessity of a waiver, and how one planned to address any resulting risks.
(This article only addresses the operation of drones by property owners themselves, or people acting on their behalf. A separate issue is whether property owners can restrict tenant use of drones, including personal recreational use that is not subject to the restrictions governing commercial use.)
The prohibition against flying over unshielded individuals is a result of the risks that accompany use of drones.