Insights from Above: Drone Power for Safer Property Inspections

By Doug Jentzsch

In 2014, a field adjuster named Cory Shelton climbed onto the roof of a large home in Texas to conduct a routine insurance claim property inspection. A recent hailstorm had loosened the granules on the roof shingles, removing the traditional rough texture—and leaving a dangerously slick surface.

Though he was wearing specialized roofing boots, Cory quickly found himself without any traction and began to careen down the roof of the two-story home. Just as he neared the roof’s edge, Cory reached for his 30-foot ladder. Desperately clinging to the metal rungs, he could only stare at the ground below in horror as the ladder teetered away from the safety and stability of the side of the house—and then relief as the ladder slowly swayed back, finally coming to rest against the home.

Back on firm ground, Cory looked up with two thoughts clearly in his mind: I’m lucky to be alive. Maybe I should start looking into drone technology.

Cory did just that. He bought his first drone, a DJI Phantom 2, and has been flying it ever since. Cory is now an avid drone pilot, clocking more than 1,000 hours of drone flight time. He became one of the first to hold licensure in all 50 states as an adjuster and as a Part 107 licensed pilot (the FAA-required certification for all commercial drone pilots).

When first used for insurance inspections, drones (also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs) were really just flying cameras. These first drones took the needed pictures while inspectors remained safely on the ground.

In just a few short years, drones have evolved from simple flying cameras to one of the hottest new technologies for acquiring aerial imagery and geospatial data. The high-resolution cameras capture pictures at levels far beyond the handheld cameras that adjusters were using only a few years ago. Plus, drones are capable of capturing images of properties and structures from all angles in a fraction of the time, reaching viewpoints that were nearly impossible for a single field adjuster to get on his or her own. For example, the top of a chimney will be hit by every storm regardless of the storm’s direction; inspecting the coping is easily performed by a drone.

Today’s drones are equipped with sensors that allow for auto takeoff and auto landing, returning the drone to precisely the spot of initial takeoff. Obstacle avoidance sensors in the front, rear, and sides can halt the drone midair to avoid crashing into a wall or chimney. Additionally, the ability to hover enables users to zoom in, getting closer images of particular roof patches or other details.

A drone inspection provides a series of high-resolution images that allow for a thorough visual inspection. It’s the same visual inspection that would have been conducted from atop the roof, but in a fraction of the time and without the safety hazards.

Drone imagery combined with the right software can generate virtually all the dimensions, measurements, area, slope, and more from the structure being examined. This eliminates the need for an inspector to personally climb on a roof with a tape measure and, for steep roof situations, obviates the need for a ladder assist or harness team.

While there’s plenty of chatter about drones and the benefits they offer, insurance industry adoption still appears to be slow. And while the price of consumer-grade drones has decreased significantly, the price of professional-grade drones has increased because of specialty features and sensors. For example, DJI’s Phantom 4 Pro has a retail price of around $1,500. Entry-level DJI drones like the Mavic Air and Mavic Pro are still highly advanced but can be purchased for closer to $1,000.

In addition to the costs of equipment and insurance, certifying adjusters with Part 107 certification requires a time investment. Pilots need to not only study for the certification but must also learn to actually fly the drones.

Still, if an adjuster can do his or her job from the ground, it’s far safer and much less risky. A drone inspection can often be conducted in 20 minutes or less, where an inspection that requires climbing on a roof can take 45 minutes to an hour or more. That’s a lot of time saved when you consider how many claims are being processed.

An alternative to buying equipment and certifying adjusters as drone pilots is to have a third-party drone operator handle the inspections for you. This option provides all the benefits of drone usage without having to license and train a pilot, get insured, and purchase and maintain drone equipment. Because this option removes the control of sending “your people” on-site, partnering with certified drone pilots that fully understand insurance inspections is key.

While widespread adoption may appear slow, many companies are moving forward with drone inspections. Many successful companies are seeking ways to integrate drone inspections directly into their current workflows. And while drone imagery in itself certainly has many advantages, it’s most powerful when combined with other imagery sources such as satellite images, images from airplanes, and even images captured at ground level using a mobile device.

A drone may not be the only tool an adjuster needs, but it certainly can become a powerful one when combined with other tools and processes already in place.

Doug Jentzsch is director of marketing for Geomni, a Verisk (Nasdaq:VRSK) business.