CoStar Group’s Cessna Grand Caravan C208 can be seen cruising at about 138 mph above one of the company’s nearly 200 market cities on any given day.
However, the plane isn’t used for pleasure. CoStar takes to the skies to collect data on commercial real estate properties and apartments, and that information is loaded into the company’s database for subscribers to use.
The research plane, which soared above Richmond last week, is an important high-tech and expensive tool for CoStar Group Inc., the Washington, D.C.-based commercial real estate research company that has moved its research operations to downtown Richmond.
The cost of operating the research plane totals nearly $1 million every year, but CoStar believes the investment is worth the expense. CoStar, which boasts the largest commercial real estate database in the country, said it is the only firm to use a plane to collect data.
The aerial research photographer aboard the plane takes pictures of every commercial real estate development in a market area, including apartments and other multifamily projects. Schools and single-family homes are not included in the database.
Amber Surrency, one of CoStar’s two aerial research photographers who is a former senior intelligence analyst for the U.S. Marines, returned to Richmond last week to update CoStar’s database of properties here.
“There’s a little bit more going on this time,” Surrency said about the real estate activity she saw Monday while photographing parts of the Richmond region compared with her previous visits.
On one of her trips Monday, for instance, the plane circled multiple times around downtown Richmond and then soared over Stony Point Fashion Park. It headed to the Short Pump area of western Henrico County, where the plane made a couple of loops around that fast-growing area, and then to the Richmond International Raceway before heading back to Richmond International Airport. Ben Hursa and Mark Beauchamp piloted the plane.
CoStar began aerially photographing its first market — Las Vegas — in June 2015. Since then, the plane has visited 224 markets, some of which are repeats, and has flown 290,000 miles.
The markets are revisited for database updating about every 10 months. The CoStar plane first flew over the Richmond area in July 2015, then again in May 2016, prior to last week’s visit.
The CoStar plane, acquired in late 2014, flies about 138 mph at 2,500 feet above the ground. At this speed and altitude, it is ideal for taking photos and videos of properties.
Taking photos and doing research from the air has many advantages when compared to documenting new real estate developments from the ground, Surrency said.
When collecting data from a plane, the camera can “see more of what a car might not be able to,” Surrency said.
Driving down every street in a market searching for new commercial real estate developments could take weeks, or even months, to complete depending upon the market.
That’s exactly how CoStar gathered all of its information before buying the plane. The company still has a fleet of more than 200 vehicles that canvass markets to update the company’s database.
But from the air, documenting is “more efficient,” according to Surrency, taking just a day or two to canvas an area the size of the Richmond region, or a week to fly over a larger markets, such as Dallas or Atlanta.
Many times, construction sites are hidden behind fences, thus limiting what information can be gathered from the road at ground-level.
But that’s not the case from the skies, where planes can fly over properties and check out and focus on any “plot of dirt with construction equipment,” Surrency said.
“This process expedites our site inspections, verifying the progress of current construction projects and identifying new construction that may not already be in CoStar’s database,” said Lisa Ruggles, CoStar’s senior vice president of global research, referring to the research conducted from the plane.
“CoStar Group is the only information provider with this resource giving us an advantage in data quality,” Ruggles said. “We have captured data and aerial images on half a billion square feet of construction projects and added 5,000 new construction projects to our database.”
CoStar’s plane flies every day except during inclement weather or airplane repairs. Two crews, consisting of two pilots and one aerial photographer, rotate plane operations every 10 days.
The Red Epic Dragon 5K camera, mounted on the underside of the plane, is the same model once used to gather information for the military in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The plane’s camera moves 360 degrees and the exposure can be adjusted by the photographer while the camera is in use.
Most days, Surrency records images of 70 new buildings, construction sites and other properties during the course of seven to eight hours of flight time.
During flight, Surrency sits in front of an electronic interactive map — which is connected to the camera — that shows CoStar’s known data points in real time as the plane flies overhead. Data are collected based on sites already in its database as well as new sites found during flights.
The photographer can add additional data points in-flight for researchers on the ground to look into further.
Addresses of work sites already known to CoStar appear in green on the electronic map. Sites such as schools and hospitals appear in purple. Additional destinations found during a flight appear in red. The track flown by the plane that day appears in blue.
The camera shoots only video. Still photos are extracted from those videos after each flight.
Processing images after a day of flying can take upwards of three hours, Surrency said.
Researchers at CoStar’s global research headquarters in Richmond then label, edit and upload images to its database for subscribers to view.
The offices, on the top four floors of the WestRock building at 501 S. 5th St., has about 595 employees. When the company announced in October that it was moving its research center to Richmond, the company said then that it planned to employ as many as 730 workers here.
Researchers receive data from the flights once the plane has landed, then search for more information about the sites. They collect information such as who is building a property, when it is expected to be completed and what is being constructed.
Data are loaded into the CoStar database, then released to subscribers.
CoStar’s subscribers typically include property managers and real estate brokers. One such subscriber is Henrico-based commercial real estate brokerage Cushman & Wakefield | Thalhimer.
Thalhimer uses CoStar data for “data analytics to produce research such as our quarterly reports as well as to market our listings,” financial analyst Basil Hallberg said. Thalhimer’s quarterly reports cover industrial, retail, multifamily and office real estate, which are similar categories to the data CoStar collects.