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

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.

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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.

[ View our slideshow: The drones are flying at Travelers ]

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 CIO.com 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.

[ Related: Infographic: Commercial drones by the numbers ]

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."

But Gee remains optimistic, noting that drone use will “vastly expedite damage assessments down the road.” Exactly when "down the road" is an open question. The FAA will reportedly ease up on its UAV pilot's license and spotter rules by the middle of the summer. The 500-foot rule will likely take longer.

In the meantime, Travelers, which has conducted only a few drone property assessments due to the restrictions, will continue simulating drones from various manufacturers in Claims U, Gee says. Moreover, Gee says he has personally gone to Capitol Hill to persuadethe FAA and other principals that drone use would be a vital part of Travelers' business. "We're having a lot of conversation to help move the process along so we can use [drones] cost-effectively," Gee says.

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Agents use satellite imagery and geospatial software to create color-coded maps of hail storms, tornadoes and floods. (Click for large image.)

Gauging natural disasters with satellites, social media

Drones are merely a part of the high-tech tools Travelers employs to enable its claims agents to analyze damages to properties and automobiles.

[ Related: FAA mandates registration for all non-commercial drones ]

Agents also use satellite imagery and geospatial software to create color-coded maps -- red bad, green good -- of hail storms, tornadoes and floods. One such map showed the pockets of destruction caused by a tornado in Pulaski County, Ark., with blue dots representing homes and orange dots representing businesses.

To get an idea of the extent of natural disasters in regions where it has a lot of customers, Travelers has also created a social media dashboard that enables it to collect damage photos from Twitter, Facebook and other public data sources. "We can put together a picture of how damaging [a catastrophe] was before getting physical access to the site," Gee says.

Gee says Travelers CIO Madelyn Lankton provides the tools, including claims platform, geospatial software and other technologies to support his team. “Ninety-eight percent of what we do is driven through an IT process that Madelyn's department is building for us,” Gee says.

Travelers also sees opportunities in the booming market for smart homes, leveraging the Internet of Things, in which clients might one day lower their insurance premiums by installing smart locks, stoves, circuit breakers and other connected devices. The company is particularly interested in smart water shut-off valves, which can prevent thousands of dollars in losses by automatically killing water flow to head off damage created by burst water pipes and other calamities.

As Gee says, “They keep the unexpected from happening." You'd be hard pressed to find an insurance provider who doesn't appreciate that.

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