Hurricane Matthew Claims Offer Opportunity for Travelers to Ramp Up Drone Use

By Denise Johnson | November 4, 2016

Earlier this month, The Travelers Companies, Inc., announced that it would be using drones to assist in assessing damage resulting from Hurricane Matthew.

The insurer deployed a team of newly trained drone operators to inspect residential and commercial property damage in the five states impacted by the hurricane.

Photo of tree damage captured by drone. Photo: Travelers
Photo of tree damage captured by drone. Photo: Travelers

“We’re also flying drones in Texas and a couple of other locations around the country,”said Jim Wucherpfennig, vice president, Property Claim for Travelers. “We’re learning every day and inspecting different types of damages, from some small hail damage that we’ve seen in the San Antonio area recently in Texas to…trees on roofs and wind damage, those types of damages that we saw more with Hurricane Matthew.”

The newly trained drone operators are claims adjusters who have been trained to meet the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) drone regulations and have been certified by the agency as unmanned aerial systems (UAS) operators.

“Hurricane Matthew’s strong winds and heavy rain caused property damage in a umber of communities,” said Patrick Gee, senior vice president of Claim at Travelers. “Our use of drones will help customers recover from losses more quickly because it expedites inspections, payments and repairs. The drones also help protect our claim professionals by eliminating the need to climb ladders to inspect roofs and other elevated structures.”

Photo of tree damage captured by drone. Photo: Travelers
Photo of tree damage captured by drone. Photo: Travelers

Travelers launched its drone training program last spring in anticipation of the FAA’s commercial drone regulations, which took effect in August. By the end of that month, Travelers’ first group of 20 property claim handlers were trained.

According to Wucherpfennig, the in-house five day program was conducted in Windsor, Conn., at the insurer’s claims training facility known as Claim University, a 200,000 square feet former airplane hangar.

The program begins with a drone simulation using a joystick and a computer. Then adjusters move on to microdrones and regular sized drones which they can practice flying in and outdoors. The program offers education on how using drones will better serve their customers, FAA regulations and protocols, wind conditions as well as other internal training criteria.

“We can fly indoors, over the homes and businesses that are under the roof. We also have outdoor flying areas on site at Claim University,” Wucherpfennig said.

Though the FAA doesn’t require drone operators to have a certain number of flying hours under their belt, there are many other requirements, he said.

“They do get flying experience. We don’t start training them on the big drones first. We have a drone simulator. Think about a joystick and a computer screen. All of the students first start with the drone simulator,” explained Wucherpfennig. “Then we move them to microdrones, very small, inexpensive drones that are actually a little bit harder to fly than the big drones. Over the course of the week, they graduate up to the larger drones, which are still small. They’re under four pounds in total weight. They fly those both inside and outside. Then there’s various written tests. Like I said, all aimed at giving them the knowledge that they need to pass the FAA exam.”

Once adjusters finish the program, they must pass an FAA exam and have a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) background check completed.

“After they take and pass the FAA exam, there’s a…TSA background and…other paperwork things to do. Then they’re ready to fly. We put 60 Travelers employees so far through that process. Every one of them, 100 percent of them have passed the FAA exam and are out and about flying drones today,” said Wucherpfennig.
Most of the adjusters are part of the Catastrophe response team.

“We’ve also trained a few risk control employees, three from fraud investigative services, SIU investigators, one oil and gas claim professional for oil and gas type claims. Most of them are outside property claim professionals. That was really wave one,” explained Wucherpfennig.

He expects that most of the property adjusters will become trained drone operators, though more will be based in the eastern and Midwestern states where the number of roof claims is higher.

The insurer has an aggressive expansion plan, said Wucherpfennig, indicating the insurer will study the first drones used to examine workflow and possible enhancements to the program. Of the 60 drones in use nationally, 20 of them were deployed to Matthew affected states.

According to the VP of Property Claims, contact was made with the insurance departments in the states where the insurer planned to use the drones for inspections. In addition, Travelers has a drone policy of not flying over a policyholder’s house or business unless it receives approval first.

Both policyholders and adjusters have offered positive feedback. The insurer has found that the use of drones in these types of claims has helped speed up the inspections, appraisals and payment to policyholders.

“From a policyholder perspective, I think it’s been very positive,” he said. “They’re able to see that when we use the drone technology, we’re able to…inspect the losses more quickly, write the property appraisals more quickly, then give the customer and covered losses a check more quickly so that they can begin repairs and get back up on their feet.”

Adjusters are excited about the news skills and increased safety.

“From an employee perspective, it’s fun, it’s niche. It’s a new technology that they’re able to use. It’s a new skill that we’ve been training these folks on. It’s quicker for them too. Instead of lugging a ladder out of the back of their car, setting it up, and making sure they have all the safety protocols, flying the drones is quicker,” Wucherpfennig explained.

Drones are safer because adjusters no longer must climb on to a roof to inspect damages.

“Some roofs are very steep and very complicated and too steep for our employees,” he said. “We don’t want our employees to climb on very steep roofs. What you end up having to do in those situations is hire a company, hire an expert to come out and set up harnesses, set up rigging to get up on the roof. That often entails coming out on a different day. You have to impose on a customer twice. All of that is prevented by the use of drones,” he added.

In addition, he said, drones offer the ability to capture visual imagery using geospatial and satellite technology that can be used to calculate roof measurements.

Allstate Insurance has also recently reported that it is using drones to adjust Hurricane Matthew claims in Georgia and South Carolina.

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