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Insurers back greater flexibility in using drones to assess disasters

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National insurance organizations say they favor an amendment in legislation that would allow insurers to disregard certain federal and state rules in using drones to assess damage in the wake of disasters.

Currently, unmanned aircraft systems require permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly over certain areas and must obey line-of-sight restrictions to keep drones in sight at all times.

These operating parameters prevent insurers from flying into areas to quickly assess damage and expedite claim payments, the National Association of Mutual Insurance Cos. and the American Insurance Association said in a letter sent last week to U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla.

Rep. Curbelo has suggested an amendment to H.R. 4441, the Aviation Innovations, Reform and Reauthorization Act of 2016, that was introduced earlier this month.

Among its provisions, the bill would transfer operation of air traffic control and other aviation programs from the FAA to a nonprofit entity. The FAA has not taken a formal stance on the proposal.

The amendment Rep. Curbelo has proposed would allow property/casualty insurers to use “an unmanned aircraft system in a disaster-impacted area, for the purpose of conducting insurance-related activities … suspending federal restrictions and requirements that would otherwise apply to operations of unmanned aircraft systems in disaster-impacted areas.”

Areas hit by disaster often are difficult to access, NAMIC and the AIA said in their joint letter Feb. 10. “Downed power lines, exposed gas lines, collapsing structures and smoldering embers are among the dangers that impede accessibility,” according to the letter.

“As it stands now, the FAA’s UAS requirements limit flight in a post-catastrophe environment,” Tom Santos, the Washington-based AIA’s federal affairs vice president, said Wednesday “Requiring the FAA to be more flexible post national catastrophe only seems to make sense.”

Insurance industry groups see other issues causing the timely passage of the bill as “unlikely,” Jimi Grande, senior vice president of federal and political affairs at NAMIC, said in an email. However, they also “fully expect the issue (of insurer drone use) to be addressed in what eventually becomes law,” he said.

“Hopefully we can maintain our ability to keep the provisions in there that will allow insurance companies to fly UAS in post-catastrophe areas, as people need to get their claims underway as soon as possible,” Mr. Santos said.