In a first, U.S. aviation regulators have granted approvals to an insurance company to fly drones over long distances and over populated areas across four states to assess damage from Hurricane Florence. Small, foam fixed-wing aircraft operated by State Farm Mutual Automobile Association Co., the largest U.S. property-casualty insurer, were deemed safe by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
The insurance company has been collaborating with the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP) on one of ten elite teams selected earlier this year to the FAA Integration Pilot Program (IPP). Their successful application for this unprecedented waiver is a testament to the program’s success in facilitating rapid, research-based advances in drone operations to serve communities’ needs.
“Drone technology provides us with the capability to quickly deploy over a catastrophe site and assess damage from the air,” Robert Yi, senior vice president at State Farm, said in a statement on Tuesday.
The FAA approved routine commercial drone operations two years ago, but has restricted flights to low altitudes, away from people, and to short distances within sight of an operator on the ground. The company will use eBee drones, manufactured by the SenseFly subsidiary of French drone company Parrot.
The disaster-assessment work this waiver will enable exemplifies the purpose of the IPP: to facilitate the next generation of drone applications by working with communities on groundbreaking projects that can improve the public’s quality of life and spur innovation. Through research collaboration with MAAP, State Farm determined that flying the eBee fixed-wing drone reduced the risk of damage to people and property. The drone also captures high-resolution imagery.
The flooding and other damage caused when Florence barreled ashore along the southeastern U.S. last week. Several drones have been used by utilities, state and local emergency agencies, and others for providing a bird’s eye view of damage or victims equipped with cameras and sensors for aid in mapping allowing longer range flights that can safely fly over populated areas is critical for broader commercial operations of drones, such as delivery flights and infrastructure inspections.
FAA Administrator Dan Elwell called upon the industry to work with the FAA to fully integrate UAS into the National Airspace System while giving the keynote address at the InterDrone conference in Las Vegas recently. Elwell said that the onus of making a good business case while giving utmost importance to safety issues concerned with UAS operations lay with the industry given the legitimate safety concerns of the public and law enforcement have. “The public has very real and justified questions about these aircraft. Everyone’s interested in drone operations at night and over people. But we need to address the concerns that our national security and law enforcement partners have first.” He said.
Taking up the issue of lax regulation of recreational drones compared with commercial operations once again Elwell said that the FAA is ready to move quickly to enable the drone industry to grow with initiatives, including the current UAS integration pilot program. “The FAA has spent decades working with airlines, manufacturers, and countless others to get where we are now. We’re ready to use everything we’ve learned so that the drone industry can reach its full potential as quickly as possible,” Elwell said. “We’re building flexible, responsive regulatory processes that can keep up with all your creativity while ensuring safety isn’t compromised.”
With Hurricane Florence causing untold damage in the southeastern states of the country, it’s an opportunity to prove how safe and invaluable UAVs can be in aerial damage assessment.