Virginia Tech collaboration with State Farm helps secure FAA waiver for drone operations over populated areas in states impacted by Hurricane Florence
Insurer working with Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership as member of the FAA Integration Pilot Program on research to expand safe drone operations
September 19, 2018 — State Farm has been granted a first-of-its-kind waiver for drone operations to assess damage in communities impacted by Hurricane Florence.
The Federal Aviation Administration waiver combines permissions for two types of operations that are typically tightly restricted: operations over people and flights beyond the operator’s visual line of sight. These provisions are approved over four states impacted by Hurricane Florence; together, they dramatically enhance State Farm’s ability to evaluate hurricane damage and allocate resources.
The insurance company has been collaborating with the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership on one of 10 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.
“State Farm needs to quickly assess damage after significant weather events,” said Robert Yi, senior vice president of State Farm. “Drone technology provides us with the capability to quickly deploy over a catastrophe site and assess damage from the air. The data we obtain from drone flights can be used to help us determine the severity of damage. This also allows us to place our claims team on the ground and evaluate an uninhabitable insured property.”
Since May 2018, State Farm has collaborated with MAAP and Virginia Tech’s world-renowned injury biomechanics group to assess a wide range of potential risks and strategies for reducing them; the team collected data on a variety of parameters, including the aircraft’s communications performance, navigational precision, and the risk of injury to humans. The strength of the data made a compelling case to the FAA that State Farm could safely conduct sophisticated aerial damage-assessment operations following the devastating impact of Hurricane Florence. That capability gives State Farm additional tools to serve customers and moves the whole drone industry forward.
Current FAA regulations restrict pilots from flying drones beyond their visual line of sight and from flying drones over groups of people. In a catastrophe situation such as Hurricane Florence, access to the area may be challenged by water, debris, and damage to infrastructure. Damage may also extend across a large area, making efficient damage assessment very difficult. The new waiver will make the insurer’s work much easier by allowing longer-distance flights over densely populated areas.
The FAA waiver reflects months of detailed research following a process pioneered by MAAP for identifying, evaluating, and mitigating potential risks presented by drone operations.
“This is a pivotal moment that demonstrates the value of a risk-based safety case development process,” said MAAP director Mark Blanks. “Drone technology has tremendous potential to serve the public, but before we can harness that capability, we need to demonstrate conclusively that ambitious operations can be done safely. This waiver, and the volume of research that backs it up, shows that this approach works.”
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. Manufactured by senseFly, the drone also captures high-resolution imagery.
Earlier this year, the Virginia-based research team was selected for the FAA Unmanned Aerial Systems Integration Pilot Program. The FAA announced their selection of teams for the multi-year program following a competitive application process. State Farm is the only insurance company selected to participate in the program. Approximately 150 communities applied for the program. Only 10 teams from across the country were selected.
Over the next three years, the Virginia team will explore applications of drone technology, including catastrophe response, emergency management, and infrastructure inspection. The day-to-day operations will be managed by Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership at Virginia Tech, which has accumulated significant expertise running one of only seven federal test sites for unmanned aircraft systems. The organization has built a reputation for facilitation of groundbreaking testing while upholding the most rigorous standards of safety.