Travelers’ Claim University, founded in 2007, is working to change the way its claims professionals do business through the use of drones to assist in property inspection and claims analysis.
The nearly 200,000-square foot facility in Windsor, Conn., offers hands-on technical training and leadership development to more than 11,000 claims employees, and through its drone training courses, it has already trained nearly 150 drone operators. It expects to train several hundred more by the end of this summer.
“We see the drones as really another technology tool in the quiver of our claim professionals,” said Patrick Gee, senior vice president of auto, property and catastrophe claims at Travelers. “We’ve really changed the way we do work over the past few years.”
The Claim University training facility contains automobiles and heavy-equipment such as cranes, backhoes and bulldozers, as well as two fully-furnished homes, building mechanical systems and a medical lab, according to Travelers’ website. These resources teach claims professionals how to efficiently identify damage and accurately estimate the cost of repairs, the website states.
The drone training program was initially launched in the spring of 2015 in anticipation of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) commercial drone regulations, which took effect in August 2016. The classes allow claims professionals to access hands-on training in which students learn how to operate drones, as well as take the FAA exam in order to become certified to fly drones.
“We’ve been really excited about the use of drones for many years,” Gee said, adding that many insurance carriers are now also thinking about using drones to aid in property inspection associated with risk control, pre‑loss or the claim process after a loss.
The Frankenmuth, Michigan-based Frankenmuth Insurance announced in May it has obtained licenses through the FAA to operate drones for use by claims and commercial lines’ loss control teams to aid in inspecting roofs and other areas of structures.
The carrier stated in a press release that select claims and loss control team members have completed FAA Remote Pilot Airman certification training to operate the drones in Michigan and Ohio, where they will be used initially, and plans are in development to expand usage in other Midwest and Southeast states where the carrier does business.
Additionally, BetterView, an insurance technology startup that captures and analyzes data from drones, stated in April that it has performed more than 6,000 roof top inspections for insurers since its inception two years ago, as previously reported by Insurance Journal. The San Francisco, Calif.-based company has software that streamlines the inspection process using a network of more than 4,000 drone operators.
“While 2016 was a big year for testing drones, we have seen insurers allocate budget dollars in 2017 to move from concept to real production use, and in 2018 we expect to see a significant ramp up in the use of drones by insurers and reinsurers,” David Lyman, BetterView co-founder and CEO, said.
The benefits of drone usage in the claims process are two-fold, Gee explained. Drones can improve efficiency as well as safety.
“Smartphones have apps with the geo-special tools we use to assess properties and measure things even before we go to the customer location,” he said. “When you add the drone technology, it really creates a much safer environment that dramatically expedites the claim process in terms of our ability to pay our customers more quickly and help them recover from losses as soon as possible.”
This is because the use of drones can mitigate the need for a third-party to inspect roof damage. Instead, drones can survey roof damage in real-time, and photos or videos can be sent to claims professionals’ phones, tablets or other electronic devices to assist in the claims process.
“Oftentimes when we’re doing a property inspection, we might encounter a very high or complex roof,” Gee said. “That might require us to bring in a vendor that has special rigging for that type of situation. In the case of a drone, we can use it, fly up and inspect that property without having to actually setup a second visit. We can take care of everything the first time which really expedites the claim process.”
However, there are challenges for insurance carriers to keep in mind. One of the biggest challenges, Gee said, are the many rules relative to the FAA guidelines. The FAA website lists basic guidelines an operator must know for flying drones both for commercial or recreational use under the small Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) rule.
For commercial purposes, the drone operator must be at least 16 years old, pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center and be vetted by the Transportation Safety Administration. Additionally, the drone must be registered with the FAA and weigh less than 55 pounds.
“From an exterior perspective, as we’re out inspecting losses, probably the biggest challenge is sometimes airports,” Gee added. “There are many airports around the U.S., and the FAA builds a buffer zone in and around those airports. Sometimes we can’t use the drones if we’re too close to an airport.”
Travelers expects the FAA to reduce restrictions around buffer zones for the use of drones to inspect individual properties at a very low altitude and anticipates the release of additional guidelines regarding the use of drones to fly over catastrophe areas in the future, which could provide additional benefits for the insurance industry, he said.
“Right now, you can’t fly over people. You really need to keep the drones in your visual line of sight, but that could possibly be relaxed in the future and provide even more capabilities for the industry,” Gee explained. “We’ll be able to use [drones] even more than we can today in the field.”