By Lynn Brezosky
October 2, 2014 8:56pm
SAN ANTONIO — USAA on Thursday became the first insurance company to seek federal permission to test ways drones could expedite claim processing in disaster areas.
The insurance and financial services company is seeking an exemption from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 that would allow it to test unmanned aircraft systems on its San Antonio campus as well as on private, rural property nearby.
The FAA has largely limited commercial drone-use research to six test sites named in December, including a collection of Texas ranges managed by Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.
Kathleen Swain, a USAA underwriter and FAA-rated commercial pilot and flight instructor, said USAA has already worked with A&M at the testing zone in College Station and was now ready to go further.
“This would be taking it to the next step,” Swain said. “The test sites are limited. They don’t have areas to fly around San Antonio, which is where we’re headquartered and where a good portion of our membership is based.”
Swain said the company hoped to follow the lead of the Motion Picture Association of America, which helped six movie and television production companies last month win permission to use drones for filming.
“That’s kind of given us a road map as to what the FAA is looking for in these exemption requests,” Swain said. Some 40 other commercial entities have likewise submitted exemption requests.
The San Antonio company is expecting an answer from the FAA within 120 days, after which it could begin testing immediately.
USAA has had drones on its radar since at least 2010 and has picked the 5-pound, slow-speed PrecisionHawk model for the continued research.
In the event of a hurricane or other natural disaster, a three-person team — including a pilot, mission coordinator and safety officer — could be dispatched to fly the drone into ravaged areas that might otherwise have been inaccessible or dangerous.
“At the current time, the technology is for property losses and getting that aerial imagery for the structures,” Swain said.
“Not only would that help our membership after hurricanes and catastrophes, but that would also help rebuild the community faster. Because it’s kind of like a chain effect. Once you start to get one house rebuilt, then the rest of the community follows thereafter.”
Chris Hackett, director of personal-lines policy for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, said interest in drone use was industrywide.
“The biggest advantage of the potential to use drones after a disaster is to quickly assess the damage,” Hackett said. “Normally, the roads may be blocked, you have a big flood or a wildfire. It may take some time for claims adjusters to be allowed into some of the most impacted areas.”
FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford said the agency expected to release draft regulations for commercial drone use by the end of the year.
The agency is working to meet Congress’s 2012 mandate to safely integrate commercial drones into the national airspace by October 2015. But industry analysts have expressed doubts it’ll have a plan ready by then.
Concerns have centered around privacy issues as well as on fears of cluttered airspace and drones colliding with manned aircraft.
The motion picture exemptions were viewed as big step toward broadening commercial use that had been limited to an oil company in an unpopulated area of Alaska.