Drones have been deployed by insurers and risk managers for years to better assess risk, respond to disasters and improve claims efficiency.
But as other technological tools have become more widely available, companies and insurance companies are using the unmanned aircraft systems in more targeted ways to collect data and to reduce risk, experts say.
Agriculture, construction, real estate and specialty are just a few of the insurance industry sectors where drones are improving risk management practices, they said.
More than 70 harvesters at Rural Community Insurance Services Inc., the Zurich North America crop insurance business, are certified drone pilots, said Sam Arocho, procedural manager at RCIS, which is based in Loxahatchee, Florida.
Instead of insurers and adjusters walking through orchards to inspect crops of apples, peaches and pecans, drones provide aerial imagery of large tracts of land to determine whether a farming practice is a good insurable risk and to provide risk control recommendations to policyholders, he said.
Drones also capture the size and severity of crop damage after a loss, he said. “An adjuster walking through 500 acres of corn can take a long time to figure out where the damage is, whereas drones can see basically the entire field at once and spot different areas of damage,”; Arocho said.
Zach Wright, risk management analyst II, at Jacksonville, Fla.-based Haskell Co. Inc., an architecture, engineering, construction and consulting firm, said the company has a fleet of about 25 drones it uses for 3D modeling and mapping of construction sites.
The models can accurately determine whether the ground is level at greenfield sites before construction begins and then track progress, Mr. Wright. “The last thing you want is a building that’s crooked,” he said.
Haskell also overlays his design plans on top of the models to compare them to actual construction on site.
“We had a project where we ran utility cable right outside where we were building the foundations. We mapped it out and laid out the design and they were about three feet off,” he says. Catching the mistake early prevented what could have been a significant project delay, he said .
High-resolution aerial photos of undeveloped land can be captured by drones in otherwise inaccessible areas, reducing human risk, said Penni L. Nelson, Dallas-based vice president of risk management at real estate developer Hillwood, a Perot company.
By gathering accurate data about land it can develop, drone technology enables Hillwood’s leaders to make better business decisions, Nelson said. Using drones also reduces the company’s carbon footprint, she said.
The National Transportation Safety Board uses drones as part of its investigations into plane crashes. The accuracy of the information collected, such as how an aircraft impacted the ground, can inform the aircraft’s insurer, said Thomas Vargo, Morristown, New Jersey-based aviation and specialty claims lead for the Americas at Axa XL, a unit of Axa SA.
If an aircraft needs to be recovered as part of a damage investigation, Axa XL hires a third-party company that can deploy drones to recover it and perform on-site cleanup, he said. Survey mapping of a crash site also helps the insurer determine the easiest way to conduct a recovery, he said.
FM Global decided last year to put its drones in the hands of its risk engineers and to use them in a more targeted way, said Jaap de Vries, Providence, Rhode Island-based human resources vice president, chief innovation specialist, at the mutual insurer. Previously, the insurance company used third-party drone pilots.
The primary use of drones at the insurer is secure rooftop access, said Tyler Izzi, senior staff engineer at FM Global’s headquarters in Johnston, Rhode Island. “Drones have made that possible and allowed us to access roof areas that were previously inaccessible,” he said.
Interest in drone technology is growing internationally and FM Global now has over 40 risk engineers in the process of obtaining their pilot licenses; it had about nine certified pilots across the United States at this time last year, Mr. Izzy.
Drones have high-resolution cameras and can capture images one to two feet above a roof, compared to satellite imagery, said Jim Wucherpfennig, vice president of property claims at Travelers Cos. Inc. in Hartford, Connecticut.
“That’s the key with drones. You can really see even small damage, gaps in a row of roof shingles or a small hailstorm,” says Wucherpfennig.
The industry is still in the early stages of development when it comes to using drones and other non-traditional damage management options, said Meredith Brogan, Atlanta-based CEO of WeGoLook, a Crawford & Co. company.
The improved quality of aerial photos taken by drones is driving higher use of desktop adjusters, she said, noting that the accuracy of measurements and damage detection capabilities of these techniques have evolved.