As Houston's cleanup begins, the areas damaged by Hurricane Harvey have drones flying overhead to capture images that will help in the recovery.
(TNS) -- As cleanup and rebuilding efforts ramp up in Houston and coastal areas damaged by Hurricane Harvey, drones are flying overhead and capturing images to help speed up the recovery.
Companies are using drones to assess damage to homes, cell towers and railroads. For some, it's the first time they've sent drones into the skies after a natural disaster. The drones uses show how small unmanned aircraft systems are becoming a common resource for insurers, along with first responders.
Drones have transformed from a fun gadget used by hobbyists into a useful tool used for agriculture, nonprofits and businesses. Software-enabled drones can hover over acres of farmland to monitor the health of crops. In some parts of Africa, they deliver blood transfusions, vaccinations and medicine.
Hurricane Harvey is one of the first major storms to hit the U.S. since the Federal Aviation Administration began to hand out commercial drone licenses about a year ago. As Harvey approached and in the days immediately following, the FAA put temporary flying restrictions in place in some badly damaged areas. It granted authorization to several dozen drone operators supporting response and recovery, from oil and gas companies to government agencies.
Dallas-based AT&T moved drones and crews near the predicted path before the storm made landfall. The company used a fleet of 25 drones to inspect cell towers and wire lines in southeast Texas after the storm to identify wind and water damage and then deploy crews to fix it, said Art Pregler, AT&T's Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program Director.
AT&T has used drones to test its network performance at each seat of stadiums and arenas, monitor construction of cell towers and look for endangered birds nesting near cell towers that are under construction. But Harvey was the first time AT&T used drones after a natural disaster, Pregler said.
When the rain and winds stopped, BNSF Railway sent up drones to survey the conditions of its railroads. The Fort Worth-based railway company, which is owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, has about 1,400 to 1,800 trains per day across 28 states and three Canadian provinces, company spokesman Joe Faust.
The drones look for necessary fixes, so the company can get train tracks back in operation to carry freight ranging from clothing to construction materials.
Some major insurance companies are flying drones above Harvey's damage to expedite processing of insurance claims. Pilots are flying drones for Allstate and Farmers Insurance, among others.
State Farm, the largest property insurer in the state, is using drones to collect images after Harvey and understand how drones "can complement our hurricane responses and what our claims associates are already doing in the region,"company spokesman Chris Pilcic said. He said the drones will not be used in Harvey claims handling, however.
Allstate, the second largest property insurer in Texas after State Farm, began testing drones about two years ago. This spring, it launched a drone program in Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and New Mexico -- four states with a diversity of rural and metro areas, weather conditions and construction styles, company spokesman Justin Herndon said. It will add more states in the coming months, he said.
Drones flown for Allstate capture images in 4K resolution, a standard that surpasses high-definition TV. The crisp images allow adjusters to zoom in to a single shingle of a roof.
Allstate decided to move forward with the program after doing a side-by-side comparison of inspections done by drone and in-person after Hurricane Matthew in 2016, Herndon said.
Now, when forecasters predict a storm in one of the four fully-operational states, drones fly over the storm's predicted path to take "before" images for Allstate. They fly over the buildings again once the storm passes. Then, they use artificial intelligence-enabled software to compare the images and flag potential damage for adjusters.
Drone inspections save time and are safer than sending an adjuster onto a slippery or steep roof, Herndon said. Insurance adjusters can skip the long drives and review the footage from their desks. He said the method speeds up the number of claims that adjusters can handle and gives customers a headstart in repairing their homes.
"Contractors are going to become quite scarce because demand is so high, so the faster we can get our customers on a list, the faster they can start with that recovery process,” he said.
Not all damage can be surveyed by drone, however. The eyes in the skies complement, rather than replace, visits by insurance adjusters, said Ken Cook, senior vice president of EagleView. The aerial imagery company takes photos and measurements by drone for five large insurers, including Allstate. It also counts county governments and real estate companies among its customers.
Herndon said adjusters can typically complete two or three in-person inspections in a day, but drones can do 10 per day, or even more. By using drones to survey the roofs, the company also saves on manpower because adjusters do not need another person there to hold the ladder.
“It’s easily twice as efficient, if not three times or more," he said.
Cook said drone use has been limited after Harvey because most damage is water damage. Drones can take photos hail and wind damage to roofs, siding or fences, but they cannot capture interior damage.
The vast majority of homeowners get flood insurance through the government's National Flooding Insurance Program, not major insurers.
But drone use after Hurricane Harvey may inspire more companies to think about their future uses for natural disasters.
Cook said he'd like drones to help to find people who are stuck in their homes and deliver food and medicine to people who are stranded.
AT&T is testing flying COWs -- or cells on wings -- that act as cellular towers in the sky and could boost coverage for first responders, Penglar said.
By next hurricane season, Herndon said Allstate would like to be able to share the "before" and "after" drone images with homeowners who may be worrying about their house when they're miles away in a shelter or hotel.
"It's not going to change the damage, not going to change what happened, but some see it as a peace of mind," he said. "You know what you're coming back to."
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