Drone Applications Buzz Feds

Erie, USAA, State Farm – all names of insurers asking the federal government for permission to use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), popularly known as “drones,” for commercial operations. The Federal Aviation Administration has banned most commercial drone use, but insurers are hoping to receive exemptions.

Insurers foresee an array of uses for drones, including claims assessments in areas of widespread damage or inaccessibility, surveys and inspections, risk assessments, underwriting and loss prevention.

Insurers have requested approval to use unmanned aircraft system (UAS) technology on their own property for research and development, but Erie, for example, also wants to use drones in commercial and residential policyholder operations, and USAA wants to operate the vehicles at disaster sites.

While the FAA had received 167 requests for exemption from drone prohibitions from various businesses, just 13 exemptions had been granted as of Dec. 10. None are insurers.

The FAA’s most recent comprehensive report, from September 2013, offers a broad view of where the agency plans to go in its regulation of UASs, but just this December the regulator indicated it is going to miss the September 2015 deadline for safely integrating drones into the national airspace plan – and delays could extend to 2017 or beyond. Several European countries, Australia, Canada and Japan allow limited use of drones, with some restricting the UASs to five pounds or lighter. But safety issues are different in the U.S., the FAA says, adding it receives about 25 reports a month from aircraft pilots and others of drones flying near planes and airports.

Allstate announced this month its participation in a consortium dedicated to studying and advocating for drone usage in the insurance and construction sectors. The group, called Property Drone Consortium and led by EagleView Technology Corp., is a newly formed collaboration of insurers, construction industry leaders and supporting enterprises, including the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety. It aims to develop hardware and software solutions within the first year, build relations with relevant industry and government groups, establish industry standards for data formats, and promote industry expertise on UASs.