COVID-19 ISO Insights

Drones: Updates on Use Cases During COVID-19 and FAA Approvals

June 22, 2020

By: David Geller, CPCU, SCLA

Back in April, we posted about the principle that emergencies don’t necessarily create change in the world, but rather accelerate changes that were already underway.

From telehealth to 3D Printing, technologies that were slowly emerging but hardly adopted with ubiquity suddenly became vital during the COVID-19 crisis.

And if recent developments serve as an indicator, drones may finally be taking off as well.

As a refresher, here are some updates we posted back in May:

  • Starting in 2019, Google's Wing service began operating a pilot program in several locations in the U.S. Since the lockdown commenced, the number of orders that Wing has completed in Virginia has doubled. And despite the struggles many small businesses are facing during the outbreak, a bakery in Virginia that has participated in this so-called "Drone as a Service (DAAS)" program, has actually, per Forbes, seen its sales increase by 50%.
  • In North Carolina, a drone service has reportedly partnered with UPS and the North Carolina Department of Transportation "to accelerate lab sample deliveries across the healthcare company’s three hospitals and eight outpatient facilities.”
  • A development company in Philadelphia that was forced by the lockdown to temporarily cease construction operations is reportedly "'[u]sing drones to inspect our projects remotely right now at regular intervals in order to maintain an up-to-date inventory of the condition of our materials as well as document any damage to them [which] will be essential to any potential insurance [claim].'"

Since then, there have been further deployments of drones. For instance, according to Morning Brew, Novant Health is partnering with a drone delivery company (Zipline) to undertake an “emergency drone logistics operation” that will deliver medical equipment, including PPE and critical medical supplies, from a medical fulfillment center to a health facility in North Carolina.

One significant feature of this partnership is the range of these deliveries. Typically, per Morning Brew, contemporary U.S. commercial drone operations are conducted no further than a couple of miles. However, these drones will fly 20-30 miles roundtrip (Zipline drones reportedly can fly around 100 miles per trip). According to the New York Times, this is not an unprecedented venture for Zipline—they make similar deliveries in Rwanda in 15 minutes that, by motorbike, would normally take three days.

Another key component of this undertaking is the level of approval secured by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Morning Brew reports that “this is the first time that the FAA has approved long-range drone logistics flights.” Additionally, the article notes that this is “also the first to be cleared for Class D Airspace, where the FAA actively manages all air traffic.”

Between deliveries, the monitoring of construction projects, insurance claims handling, and other use cases, drones appear to be emerging into a more viable concept. However, their increased usage could coincide with a set of risks. For example, the Times notes that “[d]rones can be equipped with so-called stingrays to collect information from people’s mobile phones.” Perhaps perturbed by the threat of privacy concerns, the Times also mentions that instances of “drone rage” have transpired as well, which have resulted in drones sometimes being shot down by U.S. residents.