How Fleets of Drones Are Helping Assess Damage from Hurricane Harvey

It’s the first wide-scale use of drones to measure such damage since the Federal Aviation Administration OK’ed the technology for commercial use in 2016.

by Samantha Ehlinger, San Antonio Express-News / August 31, 2017
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(TNS) -- Because of Hurricane Harvey’s wide swath of devastation, many companies will deploy fleets of drones — some for the first time — in place of humans to help quickly assess the damage.

It’s the first wide-scale use of drones to measure such damage since the Federal Aviation Administration OK’ed the technology for commercial use in 2016.

This will be the first time Farmers Insurance will use its drone fleet to help tally claims in a major catastrophe, Tim Murray, head of Inside & National Property Claims for Farmers Insurance, said in an email. Fleet and claims professionals “are currently on standby and ready to deploy when conditions make it safe to do so,” Murray said, adding that the company received more than 14,000 claims from Harvey by noon Wednesday.

“As weather conditions stabilize and we are able to enter those communities that sustained damage, we will have a clearer picture on how best to deploy our claims resources, including our drones,” Murray said Wednesday.

The drones aren’t intended to completely replace human adjusters. They supplement claims specialists and “help improve response time and safety for our claim representatives during their evaluations,” Murray said. “From a technical standpoint, the drones’ industrial design camera captures higher resolution, 3-D images capable of detecting granule loss and physical damage, which provides an accurate rooftop inspection and can generate analytic reports in minutes.”

Dallas-based AT&T is sending out a fleet of 25 drones to inspect cellular towers to see where the storm hit its network. The drones give the company a “birds’ eye view of the tower,” through HD video and photos, AT&T said in a blog post Wednesday.

“Using drones lets us access areas that can’t be reached by cars or trucks because of flooding,” AT&T said. AT&T said via email that this is the first time it has used drones during a disaster.

Allstate Insurance drones will likely fly “hundreds of missions each day” in what probably will be its widest-scale use of the technology to date, company spokesman Justin Herndon said in an email Wednesday.

“Earlier this year, Allstate announced a multistate plan to use drones as the primary method of property damage inspections in the appropriate situations in Texas, Colorado, New Mexico and Oklahoma,” Herndon said.

USAA is deploying a team of drones, pilots and adjusters in the Coastal Bend, which includes area near Corpus Christi and Rockport, said spokesman Rich Johnson via email Wednesday. He said USAA is waiting for “the situation to clear and become safe before our response teams deploy to the Houston area.”

Although San Antonio-based USAA used drones to help assess claims following last year’s hailstorms, it’s the first time the company is using them after a hurricane, Kristina Tomasetti, strategic innovation director at USAA, said Tuesday.

The company used drones in New Braunfels on Monday to inspect a few homes that had significant wind damage from the outer bands of the storm, Tomasetti said.

USAA has about a dozen drones in its in-house fleet, but it also leans on San Antonio-based DataWing Global to provide drones and pilots in some events.

In this case, USAA is using DataWing’s drones and pilots so claims specialists “on the ground can adjust and have conversations with the members, and they can start capturing the images that those adjusters will need in order to assess damage, especially on rooftops which might not be climbable, or might not be safely climbable because of high winds or other perilous conditions,” she said.

“In times like these, our internal pilots, who are also adjusters, are focused on kind of internal work, and we tap into our external network to start flying for us externally, and use other adjusters who are already in the field to actually do the assessment,” Tomasetti said.

Drones are growing in popularity as companies recently were granted a more unrestricted ability to use them commercially. Rules allowing small commercial drone use without a waiver took effect last August.

USAA in 2015 received a waiver to test small drones ahead of wider commercial approval. State Farm was the first insurer to receive approval from the FAA to use drones for inspections, according to a previous Express-News report.

And while drone rules in August 2016 opened up the skies to commercial drone use, some limitations remain. The Federal Aviation Administration rules ban drones from flying higher than 400 feet, at night or beyond the pilot’s line of sight. Doing any of those requires a waiver.

USAA had almost 200 drone missions last year following hail in Texas and Colorado after those homes had already been inspected in the traditional way, Tomasetti said.

“We focused last year on testing how to get in, where we could get in, how much time and effort that takes to get in for events, specifically around hail,” Tomasetti said. “And last year was a great year for that; there was a lot of hail throughout 2016.”

In particular, USAA wanted to “ensure the quality of the images would allow an adjuster to accurately determine damage without having to climb on the roof,” she said.

“An adjuster’s ultimately making a decision about the damage so we want to ensure the quality of the images we’re getting from the drone give an adjuster the same perspective as if they were standing on the roof and assessing the damages manually, versus through an image,” she said.

She did note that the use of drone differs depending on the type of weather event.

“It is the first one with drones for a hurricane; we have done some other aerial imagery for other hurricanes but drone-specific this is our first,” she said. “The biggest thing is accessibility … that’s probably the biggest challenge, and it’s the same with flooding and with tornadoes. Those three perils tend to carry with them incident commanders controlling people in and out to ensure safety, and then the temporary flight restrictions going up and coming down.”

For example, when the Express-News spoke with Tomasetti via phone Tuesday, she said there was a temporary flight restriction over Corpus Christi — about the time President Donald Trump landed there.

Drones can’t be flown if the FAA has restricted flight in an area, and USAA always checks with the homeowner first, she added.

“What we’ll continue to use drones to do is to help our members get back on their feet as quickly as possible, so if we can send a drone to inspect a home with an adjuster, and it allows us to get the information the adjuster needs to assess the damage faster so the member is able to start getting repairs done, that’s our ultimate goal,” she said.

The drones, too, help keep adjusters safe, as they remain on the ground instead of walking on a roof with holes or during high winds, Tomasetti said.

“We’re using them to really try to start the recovery process for our insurers and help assess their damage and get them where they need to be,” she said. “Which, in times like these, is critical to do this as fast as we can for them.”

State Farm, for now, is planning to assess claims the old-fashioned way.

“At this time we are not using drones in Hurricane Harvey claims handling,” State Farm spokesman Chris Pilcic said in an email Wednesday. “With the damages caused by Hurricane Harvey, our claims adjusters will likely need to inspect both the interior and exterior of the home to assess coverage and damages. For this situation, we find that the best way to service our customers and evaluate coverage and damages is through on the ground claims handling.”

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