When a catastrophe hits, unmanned aerial systems (UASs, also called "drones") can quickly and effectively provide a bird's-eye view of inaccessible and unsafe areas as well as major losses. Such visual access can drastically change the life of the insurance claim, making drone use a rapidly expanding data-collection method.
But cyber breaches, privacy violations, property damage, human injury and flight-time restrictions are among a variety of concerns facing adjusters and other investigators dealing with construction claims. Cost may be another area of pause in some circumstances since the best technology, such as infrared imaging and ultra-high-resolution capture, can run into the thousands of dollars per unit.
That said, the benefits of UAS data collection seem to be outweighing the drawbacks. Drone technology can offer several advantages when assessing inaccessible areas. Subject to airspace restrictions, they can be flown from any point, either close to the loss or from a safe distance if access is restricted. Changes in Federal Aviation Administration rules and licensing requirements, as well as smart safety practices, are making it easier for companies to use drones effectively for inspection and investigation.
For the past few years the insurance industry has recognized how beneficial unmanned aerial vehicles, also referred to sometimes as UAVs, can be in the claims and underwriting process. Recent developments from the FAA have made it feasible for insurance companies, independent adjusting companies, engineers and other construction-related industries to obtain commercial licenses for their adjusters, inspectors and engineers.
Effective Aug. 29, 2016, the FAA implemented UAS Rule Part 107, a departure from its more stringent rules. This change allows all insurance carriers, independent adjusting firms and construction-related industries to obtain commercial licenses for the use of drones.
The use of drone technology offers many safety and service advantages including:
Most importantly, drones can improve the quality of the inspections because drones can go places that human inspectors cannot. The aerial images drones provide are key to visualizing losses or exposures not normally detected from a ground inspection. For example, drones can be deployed to assess damage from floods when adjusters may not be able to access the location on the ground until floodwater recedes. Drones can also be particularly effective where a loss occurs at height for example, fire damage to a block of homes or a factory building. Drones are also useful because they can view an area even while firefighters are extinguishing a fire or in situations where asbestos or other dangerous substances are in the air, preventing human inspection. Rather than use a costly cherry picker to view damage to a tall building, a drone can be used for superior results.
As the ability for insurance companies to use drone technology becomes more prominent, drone technology and capabilities are improving to meet industry needs.
The most popular drones available for residential, commercial and insurance inspections are called Quad Copters. These (as opposed to fixed-wing drones) allow the user to hover in one place and slowly move the drone over structures, construction sites, accident scenes or other inspection areas. However, the cost of these drones typically runs $1,200 to $2,400. Additionally, drones equipped with infrared cameras typically run $8,000 to $25,000 or more.
Some key advantages of these Quad Copters include:
The use of drone technology has increased dramatically over the past two years in the construction and insurance industries. During this same time period, federal, state and local governments have enacted laws and implemented regulations regarding the operation of drones. It is critical that you research and analyze the most recent laws in your particular jurisdiction before you operate a drone.
The U.S. government has the exclusive power to regulate the National Airspace System and has directed the FAA to perform this function, though some municipalities and states are passing their own, tougher rules.
Below is a summary of UAS Part 107. Complete details can be found at www.faa.gov/uas/.
Unmanned Aircraft Operational Limitations:
In addition to the revised FAA requirements, many local governments have enacted ordinances and resolutions regarding the use of drones in an attempt to regulate the airspace above their cities. For example, Los Angeles prohibits operation of drones after sunset, while Charlottesville, Va., has banned drone use entirely.
While there are certainly many advantages of using drones to expedite an insurance claim or other inspection, there are also serious potential liability concerns that make the need for regulation necessary. The two major liability concerns involve: (1) bodily injury or property damage caused by the operation of the drone, and (2) the cause of action for invasion of privacy.
As the use of drones increases, the liability claims associated with them are expected to increase as well.
To date, people have been injured because of the operation and use of drones in several states resulting in lacerations and head injuries. Drones have injured performers and spectators at events when crashing into people or crowds, and there have been several cases of property damage because of accidental UAS crashes.
Concerns have also been expressed over the nightmare scenario of a UAV hitting a commercial airplane and automobile accidents caused by a low-flying drone.
Drone owners and operators face potential exposure for invasion of privacy under both common law and state statutes, such as the Florida Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act (FUSA). Florida's FUSA prohibits a person from using a UAS "to record an image of privately owned real property or of the owner, tenant, occupant, invitee or licensee of such property with the intent to conduct surveillance on the individual or property captured in the image in violation of such person's reasonable expectation of privacy without his or her written consent," with certain exceptions. More information about FUSA can be found at www.flsenate.gov/Laws/Statutes/2016/934.50.
States, including Idaho, North Carolina, Oregon, Tennessee and Texas, have begun enacting statutes regarding drones and the possible invasion of privacy by drone operators. In light of potential legal liabilities, many companies are employing specialists and outside firms for drone operation.
Best practices for UAS use are critical whether the drone is being operated by you, your employees or a vendor.
-Details on how you are avoiding any non-participating people, vessels, vehicles and structures.
-An evaluation of the drone itself to determine that its systems are properly functioning and are in compliance with any operations manuals, safety procedures or guidelines.
-Step-by-step instructions to ensure the pilot has fully evaluated himself, the crew, the audiovisual, mission system and environment so the flight path will be free of any obstructions, power lines, trees or other problems. There is an easy-to-use smart phone application, B4UFLY, which helps UAS operators determine whether there are any restrictions or requirements in effect for a particular location.
-Detailed maintenance logs should be kept regarding each inspection and all maintenance performed. Maintenance should include the drone itself (e.g., batteries and blades) as well as the software and hardware.
-The drone pilot should keep an accurate flight log regarding every flight including at a minimum the date, the time the flight begins and ends, the pilot and any crew-members' identity, the location or flight path of the drone, and any use of the camera and infrared or other data recording functions. It is critical to maintain camera footage should a dispute arise.
-You should consider sending written and verbal notices to the surrounding property owners to the extent necessary for your drone use. The notice should include at a minimum the general time frame and flight plan of the drone and the scope and reason for its use. If possible, you should obtain permission from the surrounding property owner(s) before the drone use. You may be able to change your flight path or use depending upon which owners provide permission to you for flight over their property. You should confirm all permissions granted by letter and retain a copy for your file.
-Your drone should be analyzed for any potential data security issues. There should be a written security policy with respect to the collection, use, storage and dissemination of the collected data. You should make reasonable efforts to regularly monitor the systems for any breach or data security risks.
-The drone operator and his crew should be wearing proper and professional attire, such as a helmet, safety eyeglasses and a high-visibility safety vest. Warning or caution signs should be placed in the area.
In the last two years, at least 17 insurance companies have applied for, and received, permission to operate drones as part of their business in connection with the underwriting of policies, loss control, risk management, and the investigation of claims. We expect to see the use of drones to become even more common in the insurance and construction industries and in other applications in the years ahead. In the meantime, the FAA is trying to catch up on policies to regulate this airspace. It is important to keep a careful eye on these changes and play a part in their development.
David P. Amori, PE, RRC, Vice President of Engineering at EFI Global, is a Structural / Geotechnical Engineer and Registered Roof Consultant with more than 22 years of domestic and international experience in building and heavy civil construction and engineering. His responsibilities include the oversight of the engineering service line, product delivery, quality, training and mentoring, business development, and executive team liaison.
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