The Drones Are Here
The use of unmanned aerial vehicles is coming to the property claims industry.
By Lyle Donan
Aerial “drones,” perhaps more appropriately described as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), have been around since 1849 when Austria attacked Italy with unmanned balloons filled with explosives. But many may not have heard of their use until 2003 when the United States military utilized them in the Iraq war. At the time, the military’s UAV fleet was small, and it is reported that none were armed.
Today, we’re operating more than 7,000 unarmed UAVs in Iraq and Afghanistan, ranging from Predators with 55-foot wingspans to micro UAVs that soldiers launch from the palms of their hands. On the ground, more than 12,000 PackBots—a series of military robots—and other unmanned vehicles are hard at work finding and diffusing roadside bombs.
This rapid expansion is becoming increasingly relevant for the property claims investigation industry. UAVs are going to become increasingly commonplace as tools in a variety of our regular tasks. Several models have been in testing for the last few years; others already have been successfully deployed. In the future, it seems clear that they will transform nearly every aspect of the claims investigation process.
Many of us had a fascination with this type of emerging technology that began decades ago when we were curious kids building and launching model rockets, flying model and remote-control airplanes, and playing with remote-control cars or trucks. How many boys would strap flashlights, bottle rockets, and cherry bombs onto their remote-control fleet, sending them out for hunt-and-destroy missions?
Thirty years later, things haven’t changed much. We’re still playing with new technology and a variety of cool gadgetry—particularly the models that might help us do our jobs more accurately, efficiently, and safely.
UAVs essentially fall into two categories: vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) drones, which take off and land like a helicopter, and fixed-wing drones that fly similar to a conventional airplane.
VTOL drones are great for shorter missions where it is helpful to get close to the target to capture still images or video. They literally can be launched from and land in the bed of a pickup truck and are available in a wide variety of configurations. Popular VTOL drones have four blades (a “quad” or “quadcopter”), but can have eight or more. By contrast, fixed-wing drones can stay aloft longer (about an hour or more) and can cover greater ground in a single flight. Many can be launched by hand, and they can be programmed to either parachute to land or glide to a landing site that is as small as an open backyard.
UAVs have numerous applications in this industry. Here are five currently on the forefront:
1 Roofing Investigations. VTOL drones can operate around most types of structures and can thus get particularly close to a roof without disturbing it. Seeing an asphalt shingle with enough detail to count surface granules is achievable, so being able to review hail damage, nail pops, roof blisters, and other common issues remotely is possible. Wind damage also is easy to spot, but drones cannot lift a shingle for a pliability test or see the seal stripe of a shingle—at least not yet.
2 Building Envelope Investigations. Tremendous energy can be exerted on tracking leaks and other sources of water damage, but drones will play a role in improving this process in the future. Infrared cameras are a common tool to see wet areas in roofs and walls, and they are very useful in identifying areas of excessive air leakage. These cameras can be flown on a drone, giving adjusters a bird’s-eye view of a building’s heat signature. This is already being done successfully in search-and-rescue operations, where seeing a person’s heat signature at night or in bad weather is an asset.
3 Catastrophe Damage Assessment. Drones already can gather data from some of the most dangerous weather phenomena on the planet, including hurricanes and tornadoes. Soon, it is likely that we will be able to follow severe weather in real time, with drones serving as eyewitnesses. They will be able to fly with and within storms, reporting damage as it happens versus interpreting damage or potential damage through radar signatures and traditional storm reports. UAVs already have played a role in earthquake, flood, tsunami, and wildfire damage assessment internationally, and we will soon see them do the same domestically.
4 Fire and Explosion Investigations. Large, complex fires and explosions have always presented investigative challenges, often prompting investigators to rent aerial boom trucks, scissor lifts, or fire trucks to gain a bird’s-eye view of the damage. The value of looking down on a fire loss to see burn and damage patterns that are either invisible or difficult to see from inside the damage scene or outside of the building is well documented. Additionally, surveying an explosion debris field from above is a key part of determining origin and cause. Eventually, we won’t be able to beat the speed, low cost, flexibility, and safety of operating a small drone for missions such as these.
5 Underwriting Surveys. UAVs will be the perfect application for assessing the condition of a building’s exterior in underwriting applications. Drones can provide great views of roofing, siding, windows, gutters, and all other fine details with better resolution than satellites or airplanes. They also will be very helpful in allowing us to monitor if insureds really do have their roofs replaced after that last hail storm settlement.
UAVs eventually will enjoy widespread adoption throughout our industry, and one day in the foreseeable future they will be commonplace. There is a clear motive for us to use them where they can reduce or eliminate the risk of injury; maneuver in places too tight, too high, or too contaminated for humans; aid in gathering intelligence or scaling up intelligence gathering efforts quickly; and gather intelligence more cost effectively than with human labor.
With these advantages, could drones simply replace the human workforce one day? You need not worry about that just yet. The data they collect can be cumbersome and complex when compared to many common investigative tools, and the data is often useless without professional evaluation.
Additionally, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and state and local regulations will be major obstacles to quick adoption. The FAA has not yet released regulations governing the commercial use of UAVs—though it no doubt will soon—as approximately 40 states have some form of anti-UAV legislation in various stages of consideration. FAA regulations likely are to include a UAV certification program, UAV registration, and pilot licensing.
Heed caution before fully embracing this technology sector. The practical tools for our industry are expensive, and hobby store options likely will encounter legal challenges in claims investigations. It’s also prudent to insure the professional equipment for damage and a myriad of other risks, which will represent an additional expense and indicate a variety of liabilities, both known and unknown.
Professional training programs also will be necessary. Though there is considerable overlap between flying UAVs and small aircraft, even an experienced pilot would know that you cannot just grab the sticks of a UAV controller and be a safe, competent operator overnight. The necessary skills take time to practice, learn, and refine.
The industry will move forward with UAV technology with a balance of tremendous optimism and prudent caution. UAVs will be as revolutionary as the personal computer and cellphone, and we’re only just now experimenting with the Apple //e, Commodore 64, or IBM portable personal computer of tomorrow’s UAVs. We will develop practical UAV technology, but not until we are certain that it will be safe, reliable, cost effective, significantly valuable, and operationally excellent—not to mention legal.