On April 15, 2015, Erie Insurance, a Pennsylvania based insurance provider, received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) to utilize drones in their claims handling process.

Last month, my colleague, Nicole Vinson, reported in her blog post entitled, Property Damage to Be Assessed by Drones? State Farm Says Yes, that State Farm was the first insurance carrier to be given permission by the FAA to use unmanned aircraft. It seems that many other carriers are now jumping on the band wagon.

Erie Insurance Group, “based in Erie, Pennsylvania, is the 11th largest homeowners insurer and 12th largest automobile insurer in the United States based on direct premiums written and the 16th largest property/casualty insurer in the United States based on total lines net premium written.”1 A press release By Erie Insurance stated:

‘At ERIE, we see drones as high tech meets human touch,’ said Gary Sullivan, vice president of property and subrogation claims at Erie Insurance. ‘Drones will help our claims adjusters get an early look at potential damage without putting themselves in harm’s way due to unsafe conditions, such as on a steep roof or at the site of a fire or natural disaster. The sooner we can get in and assess damage, the sooner we can settle claims and help make our customers whole again so they can move on with their lives. We’re proud to be one of the first insurance companies at the forefront of this next chapter in claims innovation.’2

Erie applied for and received permission to use the DJI Phantom 2 Vision Plus drone. The DJI Phantom 2 Vision Plus, “weigh[s] less than 55 pounds including payload…[and] measures approximately 13.8 inches diagonally.”3 The DJI Phantom 2 Vision Plus is a relatively inexpensive drone, costing around $1,100.00 a piece. A photo of the DJI Phantom 2 Vision Plus is below:

DJI Phantom 2 Vision Plus drone

While the FAA has given Erie the green light, the use of the drones has a number of very specific limitations and conditions:

  • The unmanned aircraft may not be operated at a speed exceeding 87 knots (100 miles per hour).
  • The unmanned aircraft must be operated at an altitude of no more than 400 feet above ground level. It must be operated within visual line of sight of the pilot in command at all times. This requires the pilot to be able to use human vision unaided by any device other than corrective lenses.
  • All operations must also utilize a visual observer. The unmanned aircraft must be operated within the visual line of sight of the pilot in command and visual observer at all times. The visual observer may be used to satisfy the visual line of sight requirement as long as the pilot always maintains visual line of sight capability.
  • Prior to each flight, the pilot in command must conduct a pre-flight inspection and determine the unmanned aircraft is in a condition for safe flight.
  • The pilot in command must hold either an airline transport, commercial, private, recreational, or sport pilot certificate. The pilot in command must also hold a current FAA airman medical certificate or a valid U.S. driver’s license issued by a state, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, a territory, a possession, or the federal government.
  • The pilot in command must also meet the flight review requirements specified in 14 CFR § 61.56 in an aircraft in which the pilot is rated on his or her pilot certificate.
  • The unmanned aircraft system operations may not be conducted during night, as defined in 14 CFR § 1.1. All operations must be conducted under visual meteorological conditions. Flights under special visual flight rules are not authorized.
  • The unmanned aircraft may not operate within 5 nautical miles of an airport reference point (ARP). The unmanned aircraft may not be operated less than 500 feet below or less than 2,000 feet horizontally from a cloud or when visibility is less than 3 statute miles from the pilot in command.
  • All flight operations must be conducted at least 500 feet from all nonparticipating persons, vessels, vehicles, and structures unless: barriers or structures are present that sufficiently protect nonparticipating persons from the unmanned aircraft and/or debris in the event of an accident.
  • The company must ensure that nonparticipating persons remain under such protection. If nonparticipating persons leave such protection and are within 500 feet of the unmanned aircraft, flight operations must cease immediately.
  • The condition for conducting flight at least 500 feet from all nonparticipating vessels, vehicles, and structures may be exempted if the owner/controller of any vessels, vehicles or structures has granted permission for operating closer to those objects and the pilot in command has made a safety assessment of the risk of operating closer to those objects and determined that it does not present an undue hazard.
  • Air Traffic Organization (ATO) Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) — All operations shall be conducted in accordance with an ATO-issued COA.
  • Any incident, accident, or flight operation that transgresses the lateral or vertical boundaries of the operational area as defined by the applicable COA must be reported to the FAA’s UAS Integration Office (AFS-80) within 24 hours. Accidents must be reported to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

With this list of do’s and don’ts I think the use of these drones will stay relatively limited for the time being, but I’m still looking forward to seeing what they’ll be able to do.

As always, I’ll leave you with a (mildly) related tune, here’s Radiohead with Paranoid Android:


1 http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/erie-insurance-receives-faa-approval-to-use-drones-300065631.html
2 Id.
3 Insurance Journal, available online at http://www.insurancejournal.com/news/east/2015/04/15/364525.htm