Federal regulators have granted the insurer State Farm permission to fly drones over populated areas in four states and beyond the drone operators’ line of sight to survey damage from Hurricane Florence, in a step toward more widespread use of unmanned aerial vehicles.
The Federal Aviation Administration granted State Farm a waiver from rules that forbid such operations through Nov. 30, a State Farm spokesperson told Forbes. It’s the first time an insurer has received such permission. It’s a longer waiver than those granted for emergencies, which typically last less than two weeks, and was granted to State Farm through a pilot program the insurer has been participating in to test methods to integrate drones into inhabited areas where they have to share airspace with other aircraft, an FAA spokesman said.
It’s a significant milestone, says aerospace analyst Phil Finnegan of Teal Group. “Insurance is one of the large potential markets for drones and this is certainly a step toward more routine use of these systems in a way that they can address the market by allowing flight over people and beyond-visual-line-of-sight,” Finnegan says. “Both of these elements will be essential in spurring the growth of the commercial UAS market.”
State Farm will use a fixed-wing, foam aircraft called the eBee, which is made by SenseFly, a unit of France’s Parrot, to assess customers’ property in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia.
“State Farm needs to quickly assess damage after significant weather events,” Robert Yi, a senior vice president at State Farm, said in a statement. “The data we obtain from drone flights can be used to help us determine the severity of damage. This also allows us to place our claims team on-the-ground and evaluate uninhabitable insured property.”
The FAA determined that State Farm could operate the drones safely based on work the insurer has conducted since May with the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP) at Virginia Tech as part of the UAS Integration Pilot Program, in which 10 state, local and tribal governments are partnering with private companies to test applications of drone technology in more complex environments. MAAP said in a statement that the team had worked to assess a wide range of potential risks on communications performance, navigational precision and potential injury to humans, and developed strategies to reduce them.
An FAA spokesman said waivers were issued for hurricane response last year allowing operation beyond visual line of sight, but not over people, as State Farm’s waiver allows.
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