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Insurer's drones offer a bird's eye view of property damages

Clint Boulton | June 16, 2016
Travelers is testing drones as an alternative to hiring third-parties to assess roof damage, but regulations remain a major impediment to widespread commercial use of the technology.

WINDSOR, Conn. -- The sound of a thousand angry hornets rings off of concrete and metal as the drone rises-- 10, 20 and finally 30 feet in the air and over the office building. Its camera eye searches for roof damage that it can stream to the flat-screen TV on the ground.

The drone demonstration, conducted in a cavernous lab at insurance provider Travelers, was a snapshot of how the company hopes to routinely assess damages on roofs with inclines more suited for a mountain goat's hooves than human feet. Significant hurdles impede widespread adoption but drones could prove particularly useful for surveying damage caused by tornadoes, hurricanes and floods.

Today, insurers pay third-party contractors to negotiate steep roofs, essentially buildings in which the slope is 30 degrees or greater, Patrick Gee, Travelers senior vice president of claim, told during a May visit to Claim University, a sprawling 200,000-square-foot-plus facility where 7,000 employees go for training each year.

The specialists use safety harnesses to maneuver around treacherous roof tops. But using a camera-equipped drone, many of which have crystal clear 1080p or even 4K resolutions, Travelers can save the time and costs of contacting such contractors, not to mention significantly reducing risk of human injury. "We'd love not to have people up on roofs for safety purposes," Gee says. "It's much safer to be able to do it with a drone and do it from the ground so we've been very intrigued."

Drone home, drone home!

Travelers isn't alone in its bid to leverage drones in loss assessments. Liberty Mutual Insurance, State Farm and American Family Insurance are all testing or using the machines in limited instances. Jeff Haner, a Gartner analyst who tracks the insurance sector, said drones will significantly improve support that insurance CIOs can provide for underwriting and claims-handling, especially for natural disasters.

Yet challenges to broad commercial drone use remain. Proposed regulations from Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) make commercial drone use prohibitive. The FAA wants companies that wish to operate a drone commercially to have pilots obtain an "airworthiness certification.” Moreover, pilots using a video screen are advised to have a "spotter" -- someone who won't take their eyes off of the drone -- so they can focus on shooting. And in what Gee says is the biggest obstacle yet, the FAA also prohibits unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) from venturing within 500 feet in diameter of any person or building. In a subdivision with 30 homes clustered together, checking in with all of the homeowners isn't realistic, Gee says.

Haner says the potential for drones to significantly improve key insurance operations "will not be fully realized in the U.S. until regulatory challenges are resolved."


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