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Check insurance policies before flying drones, experts advise

| Friday, Dec. 18, 2015, 11:11 p.m.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Tim Robertson flies a Dromida Ominus drone for sale at J&C Hobbies in Penn Hills on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Drones for sale at J&C Hobbies in Penn Hills on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Tim Robertson flies a Dromida Ominus drone for sale at J&C Hobbies in Penn Hills on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
A Blade Chroma camera drone for sale at J&C Hobbies in Penn Hills on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015.

What goes up must come down.

And remote-controlled hobby drones sometimes come down hard and in the wrong place.

Dozens of crashes in recent years resulted in property damage, injuries and criminal charges, including an October accident in which a British toddler was blinded when a neighbor's out-of-control drone sliced one of the child's eyes in half. In June a 2-pound drone struck a Seattle building and fell on a woman at a parade, knocking her unconscious.

With 400,000 drones expected to fly off American store shelves this holiday season and into the hands of many inexperienced operators, accidents figure to increase. Authorities are urging drone owners to review their insurance policies to ensure they are protected from liability.

“I would suspect as the number (of drones) increases, so too will the number of claims,” said Dave Phillips, a Pennsylvania-based spokesman for State Farm Insurance.

People who use drones and other aircraft such as model airplanes and helicopters as a hobby are not required to complete training or be licensed to fly them. Starting on Monday, owners of remote-controlled aircraft weighing between about a half-pound and 55 pounds will be required to register them with the Federal Aviation Administration.

Pennsylvania Insurance Secretary Teresa Miller said hobbyists are “generally covered” under their homeowners or renters insurance policies.

“In many cases, if you have liability coverage in your homeowners or renters policy, this will cover damage from a drone, but it is a good idea to check with your insurer before putting your drone in the sky,” Miller said.

Leah Knapp, a spokeswoman for Erie Insurance, said the company covers damage to drones and model aircraft under its homeowners policies. She added, “Damage caused by a drone is likely covered, but it's always good to check with your agent to understand what your policy does and doesn't cover.”

Phillips said that if a person crashes a drone into a neighbor's home and causes damage, many insurers would turn first to the neighbor's insurance policy to cover costs of repairing the damage — as they would if a homeowner's tree crashed onto a neighbor's home. The neighbor's deductible payment could be reimbursed through a process called subrogation, he said.

If the drone injures a person, Phillips said, the operator's homeowners policy could cover the victim's out-of-pocket medical expenses — as it would if someone hit a baseball onto a neighbor's property and injured someone there.

Phillips said owners of expensive drones or model aircraft might want to insure the item separately. Some policies cap coverage on electronics at $2,500, yet some drones cost much more than that, he said.

The caveat, he said, is whether operators are following the law.

“Once you break the law in an act, it's considered an intentional act and excludes insurance coverage,” Phillips said, urging operators to check with the FAA and their respective municipal governments to learn the rules.

This fall, Pittsburgh City Council adopted legislation banning the use of drones and model aircraft in city parks. The FAA advises operators who want to fly within five miles of an airport to contact airport officials in advance.

Because heliports, such as those belonging to hospitals, involve low-altitude operations, drone and model aircraft operators should treat them as they would an airport, the FAA said in a statement.

Before checking on their insurance coverage, says Micah Rosa of the Pittsburgh Drone Masters Club, operators should register their drones or model aircraft with the FAA. A $5 fee will be reimbursed to owners' credit or debit cards for the first 30 days. All aircraft must be registered by Feb. 19, the FAA said.

“If you fly and hit something, you may be insured. But if you're not registered with the FAA, you definitely won't be insured,” Rosa said.

Betty Pusateri, co-owner of J&C Hobbies in Penn Hills, said, “We have a lot of good customers using them for recreation, but a lot of them aren't very knowledgeable about how and where to operate them,” noting the signal to a transmitter on one customer's drone got jammed by signals from Downtown's David L. Lawrence Convention Center. It went out of control over the Allegheny River before crashing into a convention center wall and breaking into pieces.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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