Aerial Intelligence: Taking Hurricane Recovery to New Heights

By Doug Jentzsch

aerial-intelligence2.jpgTwo hurricanes in 2018, both with vastly different projections, proved again the power and unpredictability of Mother Nature—and brought a sharp reminder of the importance of hurricane preparedness.

Hurricane Florence received extensive media attention before eventually making landfall near Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. There was good reason for the coverage, as this Category 4 was expected to cause significant damage. Florence began a slow crawl through the Carolinas at a speed between three and six miles per hour, lashing the states with heavy winds and rains. Some areas in North Carolina saw 35 inches of rainfall, drowning a record previously set by Hurricane Floyd in 1999. Residents in other areas faced massive 10-foot storm surges, downed trees and utility poles, and roof damage.

Even so, and despite the forecasts and media frenzy, the onslaught of Florence was less powerful than expected. Just a few weeks later, Hurricane Michael formed seemingly out of nowhere. Michael went from a mild tropical storm to a powerful Category 4 hurricane within a matter of days. Compared with Florence, Hurricane Michael received little media coverage—likely due to lower predictions of damage—and yet the destruction caused by Michael shattered expectations.

In the end, Hurricane Michael was one for the history books, becoming the most powerful hurricane to hit the Florida Panhandle since weather records began in 1851.When Michael came ashore on October 10, 2018, the storm was packing 155-mph winds and a minimum central pressure of 919 millibars, the third-lowest landfall pressure ever recorded. Storms such as these paint a heartbreaking picture and teach a valuable lesson: preparation with the right resources to document loss can speed up the claims process. An efficient way to do this is through aerial intelligence.

Surveying storm damage

Gathering post-catastrophe aerial intelligence for an area spanning several states requires multiple methods of remote sensing and data gathering to begin documenting losses as soon as, or even before, claims start flowing in. Having planes in the air shortly after major catastrophes can be critical as storms rapidly advance over large geographic areas. Many planes can cover thousands of acres in a single flight. Manned aircraft, such as airplanes equipped with advanced remote sensing cameras, still provide one of the primary and most trusted methods for capturing high-resolution aerial imagery.

“Because these storms covered broad areas across multiple states, less than 3-inch GSD oblique aerial imagery capture with full aerial triangulation was required to ensure the most accurate results,” said Magnus Olson, senior vice president of data and production at Geomni. “Using fixed-wing aircraft for imagery capture after a major catastrophe event like Florence or Michael is likely the only way to achieve a high level of precision in a timely and cost-effective manner.” Although fixed-wing aircraft may not be the newest technology, the addition of advanced sensors has enabled rapid capture of high-resolution imagery and property data along the Carolina coast, the Florida Panhandle, and further inland into Alabama and Georgia. 

Aerial imagery obtained from these aircraft provided a valuable first round of triage to see which areas were affected as well as the extent of the damage. This large-scale mapping enabled insurance carriers to set reserves and deploy resources, such as field adjusters, more effectively. Industry insured losses from Hurricane Michael’s destructive winds and storm surge will likely range from $6 billion to $10 billion, according to estimates prepared by AIR Worldwide, a Verisk business.

Unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones, bring new technologies to complement aerial imagery from fixed-wing aircraft. For property-specific inspections, drones provide some of the highest-resolution imagery to help document losses. Drones also let the adjuster stay safely on the ground without the need to climb a ladder or drag a tape measure across potentially hazardous roof surfaces.

In some instances, the adjuster may have already received all roof measurements and dimensions from the airplane data, speeding up the inspection process. After arriving on-site, the adjuster has the ability to use  a drone to gather imagery for a visual roof and property inspection, capturing images in places that might be obscured from high-level aerial views due to trees or other structures. Drone imagery—combined with pre-storm and post-storm aerial imagery—can help an adjuster determine what damage is new and what damage was preexisting.

Safer, faster tech

Today’s consumer-level drones are probably safer than ever because they come equipped with multidirectional obstacle-avoidance sensors that help ensure the drone avoids collisions into structures, including trees, chimneys, or a building itself. Drone teams deployed in the wake of Hurricanes Florence and Michael used new applications such as the Geomni Mobile app and others available for iOS and Android smartphones designed to gain the benefit of autonomous flight control. After a preflight checklist review, the app operates drones from takeoff to landing, ensuring the capture of all necessary images for thorough insurance claims inspections.

By using aerial imagery combined with drone technology, property inspections can now be completed in 20 minutes or less, compared with the hour or more that often comes with traditional inspections, roof measuring, image labeling, and estimating. When taken in the context of catastrophe events such as Hurricane Michael, this tech can save adjusters a significant amount of time, allowing them to handle a larger number of claims over a shorter period.

While drones are the exciting “new kids on the block” and planes continue to be the “king of the skies,” it’s the powerful combination of manned aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles that should allow insurance carriers enhanced and more effective tools for managing post-catastrophe scenarios and result in expedited resolutions for policyholders. Adjusters should leverage the data and imagery captured from both drone and fixed-wing aircraft to achieve the most powerful and up-to-date results. Doing this will prepare them for any catastrophe, no matter the size.

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