Image via Flickr user David Rodriguez Martin
It is currently illegal in the United States to fly drones for commercial use. However, in 2012 the Federal Aviation Association Modernization and Reform Act enabled the Secretary of Transportation to grant exemptions to approved companies that requested to use them. The first was granted last September and as of publication, 159 exemptions have been given to companies interested in using drones for agriculture, motion pictures, surveying and other operations.
While Amazon garnered the most media and consumer attention after announcing its goal of bringing drone delivery services to customers, one of the world’s largest industries has been positioning itself for years to take advantage of robotic flight: insurance.
Using drones for research and development at USAA
USAA, an insurer with more than 10 million members, was granted two different exemptions earlier this month. The company has been researching and developing drone technology since 2010.
Kathleen Swain, USAA’s Innovation Advisor and a licensed FAA commercial pilot, said five years ago the drone community was not fully developed for the commercial market, so companies began high-level independent research. The insurer partnered with PrecisionHawk, a drone manufacturer in North Carolina, and used the technology whenever possible within the narrow guidelines and laws that apply to unmanned aircraft systems in the United States.
More recently, USAA used drones in conjunction with Texas A&M University’s Roboticists Without Borders to survey Oso, Wash. after a mudslide consumed a nearby rural neighborhood in 2014. The company also continued its own independent testing until it received the exemptions, expanding the breadth of its drone program.
The first exemption granted April 2 allows USAA to “operate an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) to conduct research and development” within specific guidelines. The PrecisionHawk Lancaster drone (the aircraft stated in the exemption request) is the only drone the company is permitted to use at this time. The drone has a 4-foot wingspan, weighs 41 pounds and looks like a small propeller plane. It’s stored inside a carrying case small enough to be checked onto commercial airliners.
by Michael Thrasher
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