Drones coming to a natural disaster near you?

By , Posted on 03 April 2014

Drone with cameraInsurance industry watchers are buzzing about a trend they see on the horizon: the use of drones to assess property damage for insurance adjusters.

With the exception of those owned by the military, drones are primarily used to support public safety efforts, environmental studies and agricultural projects, but some insurance industry insiders say the use of drones for claims  work should be added to the list.

Two insurance applications with huge potential for drones include aerial surveys of damage to insured roofs and to assess property damage after natural disasters, according to Denise Johnson's reporting for the sUAS (Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems) News website.

While it's too soon to tell exactly how the process would work, it's possible that information captured by drones could be downloaded to insurance adjusters' tablets or computers, expediting the claims process and allowing more claims to be handled more quickly.

Lyle Donan, president and CEO of Donan, a forensic investigation firm, spoke this week at the Enservio Property Innovation Summit in Boston about using drones to assess property damage. He believes in some instances, for example after natural disasters and when evaluating large commercial properties, drones can gather data in hours that would take a person weeks of multiple site inspections to gather, resulting in "speed, savings and safety" when inspecting insured property.

"A drone can be deployed within minutes or hours following a severe weather event. No need to dispatch aerial photography aircraft or wait for satellite imagery. Imagery can be analyzed within hours thereafter from anywhere," Donan told ClaimsJournal.com. 

He also says that data gathered by drones can better prepare insurance adjusters handling catastrophic events.

"GEO codes embedded in the data can be used to create maps. That means easy queries by address or latitude and longitude. High resolution translates to the ability to zoom focus to within inches of the investigated area. That means damage assessments can be done remotely," says Donan. "A CAT manager could know which properties are total losses and which are rebuilds before their teams put boots on the ground."

He says the benefits delivered by drones will help ensure more accurate claim payments, reduce homeowners insurance rates and lead to reductions in fraud.

Advocates of using drones for a variety of claims and underwriting tasks predict the industry will be deploying them within five years, according to Johnson, but for now a host of legal, logistical and privacy issues are being hammered out.  

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) plans to have regulations in place by 2015 for drones to begin using commercial airspace and is currently testing drones at six sites. The goal is to implement the FAA's "comprehensive plan to safely accelerate the integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system," according to the FAA website. Part of this plan is to require the remote drone operators to be certified, among other provisions.

Of the 25 proposals from 24 states, the following six sites were selected by the FAA for drone testing:

  • University of Alaska
  • State of Nevada
  • New York’s Griffiss International Airport.
  • North Dakota Department of Commerce
  • Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and  Virginia State University (Virginia Tech)

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Des Toups

Des Toups

Managing editor

Des Toups is a writer, editor and expert on insurance, cars and personal finance. He has written extensively about all three for national publications such as MSN and major newspapers such as the Seattle Times. He has been quoted about insurance issues in The New York Times, USA Today and Kiplinger's.

Email: dtoups@quinstreet.com

Follow him on Twitter @destoups

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