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Major Financial Services Company Considers Using Drones in Inventive Way

This story originally appeared on FOX BUSINESS

USAA wants to take to the skies in an effort to fast-track insurance claims.

The financial services company, whose members include U.S. military personnel and their families, asked the Federal Aviation Administration for permission to test unmanned aircraft last week, becoming the first insurance provider to seek an exemption.

Since commercial drone use is prohibited by regulators, USAA has conducted four years of research in partnership with the FAA and public entities. The exemption would pave the way for independent testing of small drones that could help USAA quickly settle insurance claims during natural disasters.

Kathleen Swain, a USAA property and casualty underwriter, said the company is always looking at new technologies that aid the claims process. USAA believes drones can lead to faster and more accurate claims service while making it safer for insurance adjusters who are on-site after catastrophes.

"Right now we're focusing on disaster operation. We've gained some expertise in that area, and by using this technology, we can better serve our members during one of those horrible disasters. This is a technology that can really benefit our membership," Swain said.

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The FAA has only doled out a small number of permits for movie production and other commercial uses so far. By law, the agency must respond to USAA's application within 120 days.

USAA plans to use a five-pound, slow-speed aircraft manufactured by PrecisionHawk, an upstart firm that has made a name for itself with drones that assist farmers. Testing would be done at USAA's headquarters in San Antonio, Texas, and privately owned land in the area.

Swain said USAA has taken steps to ensure a safe environment for testing, and the company's crew has the expertise to continue developing the research.

As a FAA-rated commercial pilot and flight instructor, Swain oversees training for USAA employees. She previously served as an Air Force instructor pilot with the Department of Defense.

If USAA is given the green light by the FAA, the research could lead to significant changes in how insurance companies respond to claims.USAA plans to continue utilizing in-person inspections. Area imagery provided by drones would be used in collaboration with reports from adjusters on the ground.

"Getting to the site is extremely difficult to inspect properties" after major natural disasters, Swain noted. USAA is always worried about the safety of both its members and employees, she added. Unmanned aircraft offer one way to address those concerns.

"This type of technology does allow us to get more precise information quicker and in a safer environment," Swain said.

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