Days after Hurricane Harvey's wind, rain, and flood waters overtook Houston, drone companies, authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration and contracted to conduct storm damage assessment with insurance and utility companies, started inspecting homes, electrical lines, and gas and oil refineries to document damage. Now, after Hurricane Irma brought destruction to Caribbean islands and the southeast U.S., drone companies are again filling a desperate need in flood-and-wind ravaged areas to help speed up repair, rescue, and recovery efforts.
Rishi Daga, president of EagleView Technologies, a company that provides aerial images and data to insurance companies, the oil and gas industry, and the government, says Harvey and Irma are giving a boost to the drone industry. It is estimated that hurricanes Harvey and Irma will cost the U.S. $290 billion and insurance companies are relying on drones to get ahead of the deluge of claims. Drones are now conducting inspections and collecting data to help adjusters determine damage and estimate payouts.
"There are not enough adjusters to cover the damaged properties and drones are helping," says Daga.
Insurers, including All State, which contracted EagleView, are using drones in areas that are either inaccessible to cars or too dangerous for human passage. But, an All State spokesman says, drones are also being used to cut down inspection time from one hour with a human adjuster with a ladder and a camera to 15 minutes with a drone.
EagleView has captured aerial footage and analyzed data for customers using fixed-wing airplanes for 15 years, but the company started using drones to supplement reports last year, thanks to the FAA's new commercial drone rules. EagleView has 25 airplanes on standby in Florida to record large swaths of land and will also deploy drones to inspect individual houses.
For many drone companies, Hurricane Harvey and Irma is the beginning of a new line of business.
"Harvey was the first time we worked under our storm damage assessment contracts," says Michael Frechette, co-founder of AviSight, a drone services company based in Las Vegas. Frechette says he expects post-storm assessment to be a growing revenue stream for his business.
His drones assessed damage on infrastructure and helped energy and utility companies find out whether or not it was safe to send in humans to start managing cleanup efforts. AviSight also has a contract with a Florida-based energy company and is on standby with two drone teams ready to get to work.
Farmers Insurance, which also deployed drones to help with inspection for the first time during Harvey, has its own in-house team of drone pilot-adjusters. Spokesman Trevor Chapman says adjusters are bringing drones to policyholder homes with extensive damage to do inspections and help customers file claims. (Simple claims with low dollar amounts don't require an adjuster to see the damage, but more complicated cases with a lot of damage require an adjuster to document damage before policyholders can file the claim.)
Chapman says drones, with 4K cameras and 3-D imaging, are capable of detecting damage to every shingle on a roof. He says drones can complete an accurate rooftop inspection and feed the results to adjusters who then generate analytic reports "in minutes," he says.
Justin Herndon, spokesman for All State, says the company launched its drone program last summer after comparing drone-assisted adjusters with human-only adjusters after Hurricane Matthew. The company found that the drone was just as accurate and "in-line" with human adjusters, but it cost less to deploy and required less time on site. Herndon said using drones saved the company money on adjusters, and helped the company make payouts quicker.
According to an FAA spokesman, the agency authorized 135 companies to take to the skies above Houston and 28 companies have been authorized across Florida. (The number of authorizations might go up as more people get back to their homes and start filing claims.) In Florida, the FAA OK'ed the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office and St. Petersburg Police Department to use drones in relief efforts and approved Florida Power and Light, Florida State University, City of Hollywood Fire and Rescue, and insurance company AIG to use the technology.
Herndon says All State has high hopes for aerial technology. Currently, EagleView's fixed-wing aircraft helps All State map an entire impact area before and after storms. EagleView's software assesses the damage and spits out estimates for how much the company will need to pay to which customers.
Daga, of EagleView, says that insurance companies do not have to listen to the estimates, but he sees aerial technology and data analytics software going a step further than just assisting human adjusters make more visits in a day. He sees the technology sparking a fundamental shift in how customers make claims and how insurance companies make payouts for homes with damage to the roof or exterior. (EagleView only assists with exterior inspection.)
"I see a future where all claims [for roof damage] and insurance coverage will be virtually adjusted," says Daga. "I don't know why human adjusters need to be sent to properties to inspect roofs. Our vision is that no one has to go on premise, we can collect the data with airplanes and drones and process the data with our software, and send the reports to adjuster's computers."