An insurance company that has participated in a federal program aiming to expand drone operations announced on Jan. 8 it has gained approval for drone flights over people and beyond the pilot’s sight, though the FAA still requires human eyes to watch for traffic.
The FAA granted the waiver in November to Illinois-based State Farm, allowing the firm’s remote pilots to conduct post-disaster damage assessments over “areas that are sparsely populated” using a lightweight, fixed-wing aircraft system made by senseFly, the Swiss commercial drone subsidiary of Parrot Group, which is based in France. The eBee Classic weighs 1.5 pounds, including battery and camera system, and has an operating range of up to five miles. It can photograph up to 4.6 square miles in a single flight, according to specifications posted online.
State Farm, like all others allowed to fly beyond visual line of sight, is still required to keep human eyes on the area where the drone is operating in sufficient numbers to ensure that other aircraft entering that area will be spotted in enough time to allow the drone to yield the right of way, as required by 14 CFR 107.37. (The FAA has yet to waive this requirement for any applicant.) Additional requirements common to such waivers include a hands-free, full-duplex communication system linking the remote pilot to all visual observers, and a backup communications system. Training; documentation; and standardization typical of large, commercial aviation operations are also commonly required of Part 107 operators flying beyond the pilot’s line of sight.
While various technologies are being tested to give unmanned aircraft detect-and-avoid capability through onboard radar, dedicated cameras, or microphones that can detect nearby aircraft, none of these systems have yet been approved to take the place of humans watching the airspace where the drone is flying. Another potential detect-and-avoid technology, Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), is specifically precluded by beyond-visual-line-of-sight waivers granted in 2018, including the waiver granted to State Farm. (Not every approved waiver mentions ADS-B among the operational or technical conditions, but when mentioned at all, use of this technology is prohibited.)
State Farm collaborated with the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership based at Virginia Tech to make a successful pitch to participate in the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program, which includes 10 projects around the country that are conducting advanced unmanned aircraft operations and collecting data that will help regulators establish standards for conducting advanced operations using unmanned aircraft. Each of the current projects involves flights beyond the pilot’s line of sight. The FAA previously granted temporary waivers allowing State Farm and the MAAP team to conduct damage assessment flights following hurricanes Florence and Michael. The newly granted approval allows State Farm to expand on that experience and conduct post-disaster assessments through November 2022.
“There are many possibilities for the use of drones but FAA regulators need to be assured that operations can be conducted safely,” said MAAP Director Mark Blanks, in a news release. “State Farm had a compelling proposal for how drones could improve their customer experience and an unwavering commitment to safety. MAAP had the operational expertise and the research experience to help them navigate the approval process and collect supporting data. This success shows how powerful it can be when industry and academia collaborate to break new ground.”