Drone technology is evolving faster than rules and regulations. And that is leaving legislators grappling with surveillance and safety issues of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) at the same time insurers struggle to grasp potential liability.
“It’s a dynamic new industry,” said Joe Zanette, drone insurance broker at Zanette Aviation Insurance in San Carlos, noting that business operators of drones incresingly are seeking polices to protect their investments. “Changes are happening monthly and weekly. The general phrase in the industry is ‘stay tuned.’ ”
As of February, more than 325,000 people have registered their UAVs with the Federal Aviation Administration, it reported. That surpasses the 320,000 piloted aircraft registered with the FAA. And the numbers could actually be higher, because the average operator has 1.5 drones.
The FAA also reports that more than 1.6 million UAVs were sold in the U.S. last year alone. It is estimated that global UAV production will total $93 billion in the next 10 years, not including military research spending.
Two years ago, Zanette was seeing one or two people a month seeking drone insurance. That number has grown significantly and continues to do so.
“We see a lot of people using drones commercially for agriculture, real estate, photography and film,” Zanette said.
Commercial UAV operators are required to carry some kind of liability insurance, but whether operators in general are required to carry insurance is still a grey area, Zanette said. Issues around the use of drones include privacy, sharing airspace with piloted aircraft and even national security.
The industry is so new, each policy is written individually. The size and structure of the majority of unmanned aviation systems (UASes) do not allow for significant premiums for physical damage, and it’s difficult to gauge the liability exposure of UASes that operate in remote locations. When operated in high-traffic areas, the liability exposure is very high.
The price of the premium depends on the operator’s experience in aviation. The hobbyist with no experience will pay more than a seasoned pilot.
“Aviation experience definitely helps,” Zanette said. “Licensed pilots are well-looked-upon.”
Clayton Inskeep is the owner and chief pilot of Sonoma-based Drone-Aviation, which began operations in January. The company offers aerial photography for agricultural imaging, real estate, surveying and construction, and promotional videos.
Inskeep believes that he holds Sonoma County’s first FAA Section 333 exemption for commercial drones. This exemption means that he is currently the only person in Sonoma who has permission to fly drones pretty much anywhere, provided he follows the rules.
Inskeep is a private pilot with a background in maintenance. He is a no-nonsense aviation-expert-turned-drone-operator as opposed to a hobbyist-turned-commercial-operator.
“Without a doubt this is the future of aviation — period,” he said. “We’re blazing trails right now. This is the very beginning of a dynamic shift in how general and commercial operations are run. This is a very, very key time in the operation and legacy of UAS.”
Inskeep gets hired as a contractor and carries $2 million in liability coverage. He said getting insurance was the most difficult aspect of getting his business up and running. In two and half months he approached four agencies. His Zanettte policy is the same one would have for private airplanes and corporate jets.
All drone operators, whether the hobbyist or commercial, must abide by the most recent FAA regulations. As of late last year, drones that weigh more than half a pound must be registered so that the FAA can link the aircraft to the owner or operator in the event of an incident or accident. The three-year registration is inexpensive, but skipping that step could mean jail time or up to $250,000 in fines, even for drones used on private property.