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From 6,000 feet: Geomni pilots capture California’s wildfire damage

By Doug Jentzsch January 22, 2018

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Geomni pilots captured imagery of areas affected by Southern California wildfires. Video courtesy of Geomni.

The moment it became safe to fly, pilots from Verisk’s Geomni fleet took to the sky early last month to capture aerial photographs of the wildfire devastation in Southern California. The output from their efforts were post-catastrophe aerial photos paired with pre-catastrophe satellite images that are helping insurers better assess the damage.

Ortho and oblique images provide full picture

Each plane in the Geomni fleet—which is expected to grow to 125 aircraft this year—is equipped with high-resolution sensors that feature advanced lenses. This imagery-capture technology allows Geomni pilots to acquire orthogonal as well as oblique images. Both are important: Ortho images combine the attributes of an aerial photograph with the geometric accuracy of a map. Oblique images are captured at a 45-degree angle with the ground, allowing viewers to see and measure the top and sides of structures.

This thorough image-gathering approach ensures that damage can be viewed from multiple perspectives. For example, a building located in a wildfire zone may appear undamaged when captured using ortho technology; an oblique image, however, may reveal that some portion of the building was in fact damaged.

The same capability can be applied to ensure more accurate underwriting and rating at the point of quote or renewal. An orthogonal image alone doesn’t give you the whole picture because it limits the universe of available information that can be gleaned for each risk. This could have a significant impact on how accurately a risk is underwritten or rated.

Benefits insurers across the policy life cycle

To amplify our sensor technology, Geomni’s pilots fly in a back-and-forth weaving pattern to make sure their aircraft’s sensors are overlapping imagery to capture the entire landscape, from every possible perspective. Employing these flight patterns, when coupled with advanced sensor technology, ensures that every angle of a devastated area is captured.

The images and data can be interpreted using advanced methods such as machine learning technology to provide detailed information at all points in the policy life cycle—from quote, to renewal, to claim. Insight to guide underwriting and rating workflows is provided through Verisk’s 360IntelliViewTM platform. Insurers can use our precise data to better understand property conditions, perform valuations, conduct virtual inspections, identify existing hazards, assess risk, and more.

Precision and speed critical

Precision is critical to the image-gathering process, but so is speed. In a disaster area, the claims adjustment process typically begins soon after evacuation orders are lifted. Geomni operates 12 regional hubs across the United States to ensure a rapid response.

By owning our own planes rather than relying on third-party planes and pilots, and by operating strategically located hubs, we can get pilots flying quickly to expedite the image-gathering process and make before-and-after photos and data available to insurers as soon as possible. For example, aerial imagery captured in Southern California began on December 8, immediately after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) lifted flight restrictions over the wildfire areas. Planes flew out of our Southern California hub, while flight planning was done at our Oregon hub—ensuring no downtime for the California pilots.

Multiple ways to capture an image

There are several different ways to capture aerial images, and depending on the situation, some methods work better than others. In a wildfire scenario, fixed-wing aircraft present the most effective approach to assessing damages. Compare this approach with the use of drones: they’re being perfected continuously, but currently cannot fly long enough to cover vast areas, such as was seen with the Southern California wildfires. And many times, it’s more difficult to get FAA clearance for a drone to fly in a fire situation.

But at other times, drone imagery can be extremely effective. This is often true in a hurricane scenario where an inspection is needed to assess wind and flood damage, given that a hurricane moves in and out of an area fairly quickly and the claims process proceeds apace.

Geomni drones flew over Harvey, Irma

Geomni drones were actively piloted during the recent Harvey and Irma storms, capturing images that helped expedite the adjustment process. Drones can be effective for conducting inspections on a property-by-property basis and are a safer and much quicker method for gathering roof measurements and conducting a visual inspection. For example, a drone inspection might fit the bill in a scenario where it could be dangerous for an adjustor to climb up on a roof that appears structurally unsound, or where the building is too tall or the roof too steep – and would normally require harnesses or a ladder assist.

Some insurers may opt to use their own drones. Geomni is developing a mobile app that creates an autonomous flight plan for the drone to fly – saving insurers time and money. Using the app, an adjuster can quickly capture images and measurements and convert them to a 3-D model. In addition, the mobile app integrates with drones sold by DJI, the largest drone manufacturer in the world.

Satellite imagery

Geomni’s satellite offering presents still another approach. In some cases, additional imagery collection may be unnecessary, as the required images have already been captured from a satellite. A comparison of satellite imagery can help insurers assess new damage to a property as compared with existing damage. Additionally, satellite imagery provides a historical view of a structure that can be compared with the most-current aerial or drone imagery.

Regardless of the methodology applied, a benefit of any of these approaches is that Geomni imagery and data analytics fully integrate with Xactware’s Xactimate® platform, the most widely used repair cost estimating solution on the market, as well as with 360IntelliView, which combines the reliability of estimated replacement costs from Verisk’s 360Value® offering with the precision of exterior property details derived from high-quality aerial imagery.

The bottom line

When considering what type of image to order, think “What do I need, and what will work best?” There are multiple image-capturing technologies available, each with distinct advantages.


Doug Jentzsch is director of marketing for Geomni, a Verisk business. You can contact Doug at djentzsch@verisk.com