When Hurricanes Florence and Michael roared into the southeastern coast late last year, their devastating landfall happened to coincide with the last stages of a project seeking a federal waiver for unusually ambitious drone flights. The flights, it happened, were to inspect storm damage.  

State Farm and the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership had been preparing the waiver for nearly a year. It would be one of the most substantial the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had ever granted, and the team had spent months meticulously picking apart every conceivable risk the flights presented and exhaustively testing ways to address each one, assisted by Virginia Tech engineering faculty with crucial expertise on injury biomechanics.

Today, the result is that State Farm has a waiver to conduct drone flights to assess property damage anywhere in the country, with a combination of provisions that are among the most sought-after in the industry.    

“When a company like State Farm comes to Virginia to innovate, we know we’re doing something right,” said Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam. “We’ve taken a progressive approach to drone technology, policy, and workforce development in the commonwealth because we believe in the value it will add to our economy and our communities. Now we can see that those investments are paying off in milestone achievements like this one, which reflect the expertise and the resources that we’re able to bring to the table.”

For the insurance giant, the waiver is a new tool that helps them serve their customers more efficiently. For the aviation partnership — known as MAAP — which has pioneered a process for securing approvals for new kinds of drone flights, it’s a validation.

“To move the industry forward, you have to achieve a level of safety that satisfies the regulator and still conduct an operation that’s viable from a commercial standpoint,” said Mark Blanks, MAAP’s director. 

“Now we have the evidence to say, ‘this process works.’”  

Selected by the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2013 as one of a handful of official national test sites for unmanned aircraft systems, MAAP is best known in the media for their involvement in celebrated drone deliveries of burritos, popsicles, and medical supplies. But in the drone industry, where breathlessly advertised potential has been stymied by slow progress, they’ve earned a reputation for carefully and methodically extending the boundaries of what’s possible. 

Assessing storm damage to policyholders’ homes is the kind of task practically tailor-made for unmanned aircraft, which can zip over rooflines to capture high-resolution imagery of crushed eaves and missing shingles without a claims adjuster having to climb a ladder. State Farm recognized the technology’s potential and became the first insurance company to win FAA approval for commercial flights. But they knew that getting permission to expand beyond the limits of those initial operations would be challenging, so they reached out to MAAP. 

“State Farm has earned a reputation for providing an industry leading catastrophe response,” said Todd Binion, staff consultant at State Farm. “Drone technology is an additional tool to help us assess damage and serve our customers and communities impacted by catastrophic events. We also understand that safety is paramount. MAAP and Virginia Tech have been instrumental in helping us understand how drone technology can safely meet the needs of the public and private sector.”

State Farm and MAAP are both members of Virginia’s team in the federal UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP), which brings together companies, government organizations, and communities to sort through how to integrate drones into commerce and public service with the maximum possible benefit and minimum possible risk. Damage assessment is one of three focus areas for Virginia’s team, whose operations are managed by MAAP. The program’s winners were announced in May, and work on individual projects was underway by summer. 

“That Virginia has accomplished so much this early in the IPP program speaks to the talent, commitment, and influence of our team members and the genuine value of the drone applications we’re working on,” said Ed Albrigo, the president and chief executive officer of Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology, which heads the commonwealth’s IPP team. “It’s strengthened existing partnerships and forged new ones as we’ve all come to the table to figure out how to deploy this technology in a way that makes sense for both companies and communities.”

For aerial damage assessments to be practical from a business perspective, State Farm needed to be able to do two things: fly beyond the drone operator’s visual line of sight, so that they could survey multiple homes in one mission, and fly over people, so that they could operate in populated areas.

Both provisions lay outside FAA regulations for commercial drone flights. 

The FAA’s rules are designed to keep drones out of potentially risky environments. But if there’s solid evidence that expanding the scope of the operation doesn’t also magnify its risks, some of those rules can be waived. 

“Our job was to get the data that would address their concerns and make it easy for the FAA to say ‘yes,’” Blanks explained.

MAAP tackles these demanding waivers by starting with a broad, generalized version of the operation and combing through it to tabulate every hazard they could think of. That outline guides them as they refine the parameters of the operation, picking conditions that winnow down their list of risks. 

The State Farm project was the most complex trial the team’s process had faced.

For every risk the team couldn’t eliminate, they proposed at least one strategy — and sometimes many — for mitigating it. Then, over months of field tests, they painstakingly collected the data to prove that those mitigations worked. 

It added up to hundreds of experiments testing dozens of parameters. They tested how far the aircraft could fly before a visual observer couldn’t see it anymore, and when the observer could spot a manned aircraft nearby. They tested what happened if the aircraft abruptly lost power, if the communications link was severed, if drone climbed above its prescribed altitude. They worked with Virginia Tech’s team of injury biomechanics experts to simulate the variety of ways the drone could potentially collide with a human being during the operation and evaluate the injury risk of each one.

The team was in the middle of compiling all that data into the waiver application when  Hurricane Florence hit the coast. 

“We put everyone on it to get the waivers in time,” Blanks said. 

The team scrambled to get all the paperwork in just before the storm hit. The FAA’s approval came back a day later. 

The original waiver covered four states; it was expanded to include Florida when Hurricane Michael hit. And when the company applied to have the waiver extended across the country a month or so later, the FAA said yes. 

State Farm used the waiver to conduct damage inspections after both hurricanes. But the real impact, Blanks said, will be the flexibility a nationwide waiver gives them to respond to future storms, whether it’s a hurricane churning slowly toward the East Coast or a tornado slicing through a midwestern town with little warning. 

He said it also sends a signal to the industry that the right kind of research can win approvals for operations with legitimate commercial value.

“Sometimes it takes a while to solve the hard problems,” Blanks said. “This was a hard problem, but what it shows is that it’s possible to make progress in a way that works for the industry and for the regulator. It shows a reproducible path forward.”