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Drones: The FAA's Efforts for Timely Integration into Society

Watching the Jetsons cartoon as children, many of us no doubt wondered what our future would hold as a civilization – asking ourselves whether we would be traveling in flying cars, using jetpacks, or otherwise.

That future is arriving, and at a speed that none of us could have predicted or controlled.  For example, more than 2,000 drones are being registered with the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) every single day.1  That is over 550,000 registrations in the first nine months of 2016 and potentially over 2.6 million drones by the year 2020.2  The FAA forecasts that these staggering numbers will only grow as society further embraces the drone technology, especially since the FAA has recently allowed commercial drones users to apply for waivers of certain restrictions, such as nighttime operations, operations over people, and/or operations beyond the visual line-of-sight.3 

For example, insurers are now using drones to adjust losses.  Likewise, insurance policies covering drones and potential liability for drones are established products separate and apart from standard all risk policies.

While no one wishes to stifle innovation and advancement, we need to ask ourselves how we can embrace this entirely new technology while accounting for inherent safety and novel legal concerns.  The Jetsons used jetpacks to greatly simplify and add convenience to their lives.  Drones will undoubtedly do the same.  However, unlike the Jetsons, we have to account for the practical problems that arise from living in a society that seeks to embrace such a technology. 

For example, what happens if millions of drones are used at the same time within the same airspace?  The FAA is seeking to tackle this puzzling question, among others, by creating a Drone Advisory Committee (“DAC”), which will solicit advice from stakeholders in the community by identifying regulatory priorities and structure for commercial users while simultaneously promoting innovation, safety, efficiency, and rapid integration of drones into the National Airspace System.4

Specifically, during their inaugural meeting in September 2016, the DAC – whose members include Amazon Prime Air, American Airlines, and General Atomic Aeronautical Systems, to name a few5 – reviewed a detailed survey just completed regarding drone user expectations and concerns across the different industries.  The results, which highlighted safety and collision avoidance as top concerns, structured the DACs efforts and priorities for the upcoming year.6

And while the DAC’s efforts are not focused on the insurance industry, its efforts will have a significant impact on insurers.

For example, because there are no minimum standards or thresholds governing the airworthiness of a drone; no interoperability standards for drones within the same airspace; and no minimum performance standards for users (other than the very general operating rules provided by statute),7 insurance policies covering drones and potential liability for drones currently stand as fairly risky products for insurers.  All the unknowns simply make the calculation of risks exceedingly difficult. 

Luckily, the DAC seeks to rapidly address these concerns by not only (1) establishing criteria for developing, testing, and certifying the software and hardware used by commercial drones, but also (2) creating minimum operational performance standards for communicating, navigating, and/or conducting surveillance by drone operators.8  Because the number of commercial drones is expected to rapidly increase, the DAC also plans to establish standards where necessary to ensure that many drones can operate at the same time in shared airspace.9  Taken together, these minimum standards will bring much needed clarity to assessing the risk of drone policies, much of which still remains amorphous and unknown.

The other major impact the DAC’s efforts will have on the insurance industry is on (1) the adjustment of claims on existing policies, and (2) the assessment of risk, relating to real property.  Traditionally, claim professionals have had to climb ladders to inspect roofs and other elevated structures.  Likewise, measurements had to be taken manually. 

The introduction of drones has improved the customer experience by expediting inspections, payments, and (thus) repairs – allowing insureds to get back on their feet much quicker.  Moreover, because drones can now capture visual imagery using geospatial and satellite technology, insurers can now automatically calculate the measurements of relevant property, such as a roof, without resorting to manual measurement.

The DAC’s efforts will undoubtedly improve the claim adjustment and risk assessment processes even further by establishing a concept of operations for drones flown beyond the visual line-of-sight.10  A concept of operations, once established, is a precursor for autonomous operations, which will effectively eliminate the need for control or even presence by a claim professional during drone operations.11  This futuristic technology is already being leveraged by retailers, such as Amazon Prime Air, who recently completed its first autonomous drone delivery in England – taking only thirteen minutes to deliver a package following online ordering.12  Such leaps in efficiency and expediency can likewise benefit the insurance industry.

At the end of the day, the technology of tomorrow is already taking root at a pace much quicker than most of us imagined.  And while there are still many unanswered questions on how drones will impact us, the FAA and DAC are facing these issues head-on, setting lofty goals for a timely, but safe, integration of drones into our everyday lives.  Like the society of the Jetsons, who figured out how to use flying cars and jetpacks to greatly simplify and add convenience to their lives, we too need to solve the puzzle of innovation and advancement so that we can enjoy the benefits of living in a futuristic society.



1 Drone Advisory Committee Public Meeting: PPT Presentation, RTCA, Inc. at p. 11 (Sept. 16, 2016), available at http://www.rtca.org/content.asp?pl=33&sl=216&contentid=216.

2 Id. at pp. 11-12.

3 See 14 C.F.R. § 107, et seq.; see also Drone Advisory Committee Public Meeting: PPT Presentation, RTCA, Inc. at p. 32 (stating that the top three waiver requests received by applicants related to daylight operations, operations over people, and operations beyond the visual line-of-sight).

4 Terms of Reference: Drone Advisory Committee (DAC), RTCA, Inc. at p. 1 (Sept. 1, 2016), available at http://www.rtca.org/content.asp?pl=33&sl=216&contentid=216.

5 Drone Advisory Committee Membership, RTCA, Inc. at p. 1 (Aug. 31, 2016), available at http://www.rtca.org/content.asp?pl=33&sl=216&contentid=216.

6 Drone Advisory Committee Public Meeting: PPT Presentation, at p. 22.

7 See 14 C.F.R. § 107, et seq.

8 Drone Advisory Committee Public Meeting: PPT Presentation, at pp. 25-31; DAC Meeting September 16, 2016 Meeting Minutes, RTCA, Inc. at pp. 4-7 (Sept. 16, 2016), available at http://www.rtca.org/content.asp?pl=33&sl=216&contentid=216.

9 DAC Meeting September 16, 2016 Meeting Minutes, at p. 6.

10 Drone Advisory Committee Public Meeting: PPT Presentation, at pp. 25-31; DAC Meeting September 16, 2016 Meeting Minutes, at pp. 4-7.

11 Drone Advisory Committee Public Meeting: PPT Presentation, at p. 30.

12 Nathan Ingraham, Amazon Completes Its First Drone-Powered Delivery, Engadget (Dec. 14, 2016), available at https://www.engadget.com/2016/12/14/amazon-completes-its-first-drone-powered-delivery/.

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