USAA will test drones in San Antonio


By Patrick Danner

USAA soon will begin testing small drones on its San Antonio campus and elsewhere in hopes of eventually using the unmanned air systems to expedite insurance claims from customers following natural disasters.

The Federal Aviation Commission granted USAA permission to use the drones at its 286-acre headquarters campus and in some unpopulated areas south of San Antonio. The financial services and insurance company said Monday it expects to begin the testing within couple of weeks.

USAA joins nearly 100 other companies that thus far have received an exemption from certain FAA regulations pertaining to unmanned aircraft systems.

State Farm was the first insurer to receive approval; the FAA granted it permission in February. AIG PC Global Services LLC, part of insurer American International Group Inc., also received approval Friday, the same day as USAA, the FAA’s website shows.

“This is a wonderful day, not only for technology and drones, but also for innovation and for USAA members,” said Kathleen Swain, a USAA underwriter and FAA-rated commercial pilot and flight instructor. “I really see this as a technology that can benefit (members) and … get their lives back to normal after a catastrophe.”

Prior to the federal agency’s decision last week, USAA was limited to testing drones with Texas A&M at an FAA-approved test site in College Station.

USAA still is awaiting a decision from the FAA on whether the insurer will be able to operate drones in areas affected by natural disasters. It expects a decision within two weeks, Swain said.

“I used to be a catastrophe manager, so I know first-hand what it’s like going into those areas afterward,” Swain said. Safety is an issue for USAA employees who go into an area affected by a catastrophe, such as a tornado, hurricane or earthquake, to handle insurance claims.

Aerial imagery can help speed up the claims-handling process in hard-to-reach areas, Swain explained.

For its research and development, USAA said it will be using the 5-pound PrecisionHawk Lancaster HawkEye. The drones cannot travel more than 100 mph and can operate no higher than 400 feet above ground level, the FAA said in its decision. The drones must be flown during the day and within view of a trained pilot and air crew.

All flights will be reported to the FAA before takeoff.

After it received FAA approval, State Farm last month announced it would be conducting test and development flights at private test sites in the Bloomington, Illinois, area, where the insurer is based. State Farm added that it eventually expects the test flights will evolve to testing in “real-world scenarios.”

“We look forward to testing out this new technology and discovering the potential benefits it can bring to our customers,” Jack Weekes, a State Farm operations vice president, said in a statement.

FAA spokesman Les Dorr said the agency so far has granted 99 applicant exemptions from FAA regulations relating to drones.

Other companies have received permission to use the drones for such things as: aerial surveying; photography and filming; and for utility, flare-stack and bridge inspections.

USAA has 10.7 million members, comprised of active military personnel, veterans and their families.