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FAA gives insurance giant AIG approval to replace human inspectors with drones

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That buzzing sound you hear is just a robot checking your roof for storm damage

Phil Walter/Getty Images

Every year, in big cities and small town across the US, insurance inspectors scramble up onto the roofs of buildings to check for storm damage and venture into structures ravaged by natural disasters. In the otherwise boring world of processing and paying claims, this field work can actually be quite dangerous. Which is why the insurance giant AIG announced today it had been granted an exemption by the FAA to start using drones in place of humans on these kinds of risky jobs. That follows similar exemptions for State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. and United Services Automobile Association.

"UAVs can help accelerate surveys of disaster areas with high-resolution images for faster claims handling, risk assessment, and payments. They can also quickly and safely reach areas that could be dangerous or inaccessible for manual inspection, and they provide richer information about properties, structures, and claim events," the company wrote in a press release. "The exemption also permits AIG to implement a robust research and development program to explore new and innovative ways to employ UAVs in support of the needs of its customers."

"I’ve never been as excited about the insurance industry as I am now."

AIG is likely just the first of many in the insurance industry to pursue this new approach to aerial imaging. "I’ve never been as excited about the insurance industry as I am now," said Andrew Maximow, director of client services at the drone maker 3D Robotics. Over the last few months his company has gotten several exemptions, including one to work on supplementing BNSF railroad track inspectors with drones. 3D Robotics has also received enormous interest from the insurance industry. "This definitely was a watershed moment for us."

For now the FAA only allows drones to be flown for commercial purposes when they are controlled by a human pilot and stay within that person's line of sight. To fully realize their potential, these flying robots would need to be allowed to operate autonomously and over long distances. Testing for that kind of drone work is happening in Europe and Canada, which is why Amazon has been researching its delivery drones abroad and complaining loudly to the FAA.

But the recent flood of exemptions for corporations like AIG and BSNF, as well as the release of draft rules for the entire industry, show the FAA is accelerating its pace. After a long delay the agency is finally getting serious about moving towards a permanent framework for the everyday use of drones by US companies.