For several years, insurers have been using drones to gather data about asset conditions that is unprecedented in precision and objectivity—a practice which is transforming the claims cycle, making it faster and safer for adjusters to observe, analyze and assess.
Already, drones have significantly reduced the cost, time and risks associated with insurance operations. But the greatest benefits may come from flying drones beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS).
BVLOS flights are performed outside a drone operator’s visual range, allowing the drone to cover far greater distances than in a typical line-of-sight commercial flight. By operating drones up to dozens of miles away from the point of deployment, insurers could change the economics of high-fidelity property and asset data collection.
Residential insurers could use BVLOS drone flights to capture high-resolution pre- and post-loss data for entire neighborhoods and larger regions of a locality. Additionally, in the critical hours immediately following a catastrophe, adjusters could fly drone missions deep into a disaster area to assess damages and begin the claims process. As a result, an insurer’s clients receive information about their property quickly, ultimately helping them recover and rebuild faster.
Recent safety research conducted by PrecisionHawk as a part of the Pathfinder Initiative—a three-year study focused on accelerating discovery and informing regulations on drones chartered by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)—reveals a path toward realizing the many gains of BVLOS.
The research found that BVLOS drones could unlock cost savings for insurers by:
- Improving data quality. Compared to traditional spot photos or manned evaluations, the aerial data obtained through drone missions is more comprehensive and precise. Improved precision also protects insurers against fraud.
- Enhancing efficiency. A large majority of of claims data is unstructured, requiring time-consuming and costly visual inspections from human evaluators. By implementing drone flights as a regular business practice, organizations can easily replicate a flight pattern at any point in time, regardless of who conducts the assessment. This practice will yield a better overall assessment of a property.
- Increasing safety. Drones are able to inspect and analyze specific areas of a commercial or residential property that a traditional inspector may not be able to assess due to safety regulations or concerns.
- Reducing claims processing time. Slow claims processing time is the primary driver of low satisfaction scores for insurers, according to a 2017 J.D. Power study. Flying BVLOS enables insurers to respond quickly and begin the claims process sooner.
- Better disaster response. 40% of all catastrophic losses occur as a result of a tropical storm or hurricane, according to a report from Cognizant, a provider of information technology, consulting and business process outsourcing services. In responding to a natural disaster, BVLOS flight could enable companies can gather visual data quickly, even if the area is unsafe to reach on the ground, in order to update displaced residents who want to know what is happening at their homes and businesses. Additionally, a comprehensive survey could identify areas of greatest need and enable companies to direct resources to help policyholders plan, recover and rebuild.
The Path Forward
But gaining approval from the FAA for BVLOS operations can be difficult. In fact, 99% of all Part 107 BVLOS waiver applications submitted by commercial operators have not been approved, leaving the industry locked out from realizing the technology’s full potential.
The Pathfinder research provides a foundation for insurers to realize the potential of BVLOS missions by establishing standards and best practices. Part of the study focused on how drone pilots could and would detect aerial intruders—manned aircraft flown by FAA-certified pilots—and determine what action to take. More than 600 flight approaches were conducted by 75 drone operators in the field and an additional 70 pilots flew additional missions through simulations to study 20 factors.
The study demonstrated that flying a drone is the easy part. What was more challenging was providing the safety ecosystem required for BVLOS flight—the underlying support systems and infrastructure. These three necessary components for successful BVLOS operations emerged:
- Detection: Technology must be able to identify cooperative and non-cooperative aircraft and to take evasive action accordingly. Additionally, drones must be equipped and deployed with technology to provide real-time status alerts during operations to indicate reduced functionality, such as lag, latency and failure.
- Safety: Drone pilots must be educated and knowledgeable of existing airspace classes, temporary flight restrictions and no-fly zones. They must also be able to conduct pre-flight checks of all hardware and execute in-flight operations.
- Training: Pilots must demonstrate capability operating unmanned aerial vehicles in the visual line of sight before receiving BVLOS training.
Leading companies are already establishing best practices for BVLOS missions, and third-party contracting options are beginning to address drone-based data collection.
As carriers and adjusters adopt the practice, the outcome will be better customer engagement, more competitive service offerings and greater margin on premiums. And all of that’s good news for insurers, insureds and insurance agents alike.
Daryl Watkins is vice president of enterprise drone solutions at PrecisionHawk.