State Farm was recently granted a national waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to conduct unmanned aircraft system (UAS) operations over people and beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) of the operator.
The Part 107 waiver is good through November 2022. Previous waivers State Farm was granted were limited to a short time frame and to specific geographic areas impacted by hurricanes, the company says. In addition, through a Section 333 exemption, State Farm announced in 2015 it was the first U.S. insurer to receive FAA permission to test UAS for commercial use.
“It’s been a team effort to make drone technology a reality,” says Robert Yi, senior vice president for property and casualty claims. “The waiver will provide our claims specialists with another way to efficiently help customers. We can use drones to assess on-the-ground damage and deploy resources.”
For nearly two years, State Farm has been working with the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP) at Virginia Tech on drone safety case research. In May 2018, the Commonwealth of Virginia was selected as one of 10 teams selected to be part of the federal UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP). As a member of the Virginia IPP team, State Farm has worked with MAAP to assess a wide range of potential risks and strategies for reducing them.
“There are many possibilities for the use of drones, but FAA regulators need to be assured that operations can be conducted safely,” notes Mark Blanks, director of MAAP. “State Farm had a compelling proposal for how drones could improve their customer experience and an unwavering commitment to safety. MAAP had the operational expertise and the research experience to help them navigate the approval process and collect supporting data. This success shows how powerful it can be when industry and academia collaborate to break new ground.”
“I’m proud of the teamwork demonstrated in making a nationwide waiver a reality at State Farm,” adds Mark Oakley, senior vice president for labs at State Farm. “The partnership between claims, labs and Virginia Tech has been integral in getting us to this point. As the first and only company to secure a nationwide waiver to date, this is a substantial achievement and testament to the skills, knowledge, passion and commitment of these teams. We strongly believe the waivers provide us with the ability to explore new and exciting opportunities for State Farm.”
State Farm and MAAP have conducted numerous tests that evaluated the fixed-wing eBee drone, manufactured by senseFly, for longer-distance flights. Based on the strength of the research and resulting safety case documentation, the FAA had approved temporary waivers for State Farm to conduct damage-assessment drone flights over people and BVLOS in states impacted by Hurricanes Florence and Michael. The successful flights in the aftermath of the hurricanes yielded valuable real-world experience and insights that were incorporated into the national waiver request, says State Farm.
Over the next several years, the members of the Virginia IPP team will continue exploring ways to safely use drone technology, including for catastrophe response, emergency management and infrastructure inspection. The day-to-day operations of the Virginia IPP team are managed by MAAP.