USAA files for FAA exemption to assist disaster relief efforts

By Emily Aasand | October 07, 2014

The United Services Automobile Association petitioned the Federal Aviation Administration for an exemption that would allow the testing of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to be used in catastrophic events.

“This is a technology that we’ve been looking into for a while now since 2010 and here at USAA, we’re always looking for new and creative ways to assist and serve our membership and one of those is especially during the catastrophe season,” said Kathleen Swain, USAA property and casualty group staff underwriter and FAA-rated commercial pilot and flight instructor. “We saw that this technology was a really good fit for that opportunity to help our membership.”

“We’re constantly seeking ways to better serve our members, especially during catastrophes when getting into neighborhoods immediately after can be dangerous to human life, and applying new technologies is one way we can do that,” said Alan Krapf, president, USAA property and casualty insurance group. “USAA already leads a best-in-class claims experience in the insurance industry, and the application of this technology can make us even better.”

USAA has partnered with Texas A&M University in College Station, which is a branch of the FAA UAS Texas test site.

“We’ve partnered with Dr. Robin Murphy at Texas A&M and with her organization called Robotocists Without Boarders,” said Swain. “We have done research into disaster operations and some search and rescue operations research with her as well.”

USAA began researching the exemption process months ago, and the FAA process is estimated to take 120 days to hear back regarding the exemption application.

When asked about its membership response to potential use of UAS for insurance purposes, Swain said the response was mostly positive.

“It’s been very positive and people are very excited,” Swain said. “We have a wonderful membership here at the company and we’re always looking for ways to make it [their job] more efficient and safer.”

“The technology is there and we’re just looking to research it and develop it under USAA’s name and for our membership,” Swain said.

USAA is teaming up with PrecisionHawk to use their fixed-wing UAS for research.

The UAS has a four-foot wingspan and ranges in weight from three to five pounds depending on the payload. According to PrecisionHawk, the flight time of the UAS is 45 minutes, but because of the UAVs design the battery interchange process can be completed in less than five minutes.

“Right now we can fly about 45 minutes at a time and the battery is completely disconnected so you’re able to swap it in and out,” said Lia Reich, director of Public Relations for PrecisionHawk. “It’s super easy and when the plane comes down, it’s about a five minute turnaround to get that plane back in the air. That was one thing that we really focused on in this last iteration, was getting that turnaround time as efficient as possible.”