Article Post

The Sky is the Limit: Using Drones in Claims Investigations

August 22, 2022

Drones have been used in claims investigations for several years, having been recognized for their unique abilities and advantages. For example, they can access hazardous spaces, cover large geographic areas, document scenes in incredible detail without disturbing evidence, and lower operational costs through improved efficiency and effectiveness.

Drones can assist contractors and adjusters in the rebuilding process. There has been a marked increase in the number of drones in Canadian airspace, which has compelled Transport Canada to introduce some of the strictest operating regulations in the world. These rules and penalties are particularly important to anyone piloting or employing drones for commercial use.

How drones can assist in your claim

The forensic investigation we conduct will assist you in determining the cause of the loss. It can also be used to corroborate physical evidence with the information obtained. Our drone services team can help you examine and document the scene for physical evidence and preserve the scene through systematic digital video and photographic collection of evidence.

Another key function of drone use in claims is site assessment and scoping for rebuilds, typically done by contractors and appraisers. Drones enable efficient scoping of large areas and elevations, thereby saving time. Moreover, the use of drones eliminates the need for climbing higher off the ground or entering hazardous locations.

Drone technology is also changing the way we collect data. This technology is a very fast, inexpensive way for an investigator to get scene information. All the clients who have benefitted from our drone services are thrilled with our quick turnaround time and documentation of evidence, which tremendously helps appraisers and estimators.

Types of deployment

Drones can reach inaccessible and hazardous areas. This allows us to mitigate risks to both the personnel and equipment. Our drone services team typically gets involved in the following types of claims investigations:

  • Structural inspections
  • Hazardous areas and places that are difficult to reach
  • Natural disasters and catastrophes include floods, forest fires, tornados, and wind damage.
  • Large- or small-scale fire scenes
  • Explosions

Transport Canada – Changing regulations.

The Transport Canada regulations that govern drone use and drone pilots expired on June 1, 2019. Since then, special flight operations certificates have ceased to exist for the most part. Until 2019, a typical drone operator was restricted from flying closer than 30 meters to people or building structures. That is very restrictive when dealing with a typical claim scenario.

The new regulations lifted restrictions for certain drones, allowing them to fly within five meters of people. This considerably narrows down the radius around a structure. In addition, the new Transport Canada regulations separate basic drone operators from advanced operators. They also dictate the height limit based on the drone type and model.

Retaining a drone operator

One of the most important parts of drone deployment is knowing who you’re hiring. If your drone operator is not properly licensed or following the Transport Canada regulations, you may also be held responsible if any laws are broken. If an issue during the flight causes damages at a site, the operator and the client may be liable. Ultimately, liability rests with the corporation that hired the drone operator.

You must ask the right questions to ensure that your drone pilot is experienced and following the Transport Canada regulations.

Questions to ask your prospective drone operator:
  • Are they operating a safety-assured drone approved by Transport Canada?
  • Do they have a Transport Canada pilot certificate? If so, ask to see it.
  • Do they have experience in similar operations?
  • Ask for a resume or dossier.
  • Ask for the operator’s advanced pilot certificate before retaining them.

You’ll be exposed to risk and possible fines if you don’t know who you’re hiring. As well, if any of the Transport Canada regulations are not followed, you may be challenged by the Ministry of Labor. Again, this could result in steep fines, depending on the contravention.

Claims are often in built-up areas. An experienced operator will have no issue operating in a built-up area with hydro lines and tall buildings, provided they can do it legally and safely within the confines of Transport Canada. However, an inexperienced pilot will have difficulty in this type of environment, and liability could occur if they lose control of the drone.

Fines for corporations

If more than one rule is broken, you or your corporation could receive multiple penalties. The following fines are listed under Canadian Aviation regulations:

  • Up to $5,000 for a pilot operating without a drone pilot certificate. Drone pilots must carry their valid pilot certificate in advanced controlled airspace.
  • Up to $5,000 for flying an unregistered or unmarked drone at a site
  • Up to $5,000 for flying where you’re not allowed. Several statutes or laws might come into effect here. These could be local bylaws, City Local bylaws restricting drone flights, or the Trespass to Property Act.
  • Up to $15,000 for putting aircraft and people at risk

Structural inspections

We’re seeing high requests for drone flights for structural inspections. Structural inspections can be extremely hazardous, especially when a failure occurs.

Drone technology ensures site safety for contractors. For instance, ladders can fall or break during roof inspections, resulting in personal injury. In addition, contractors will encounter hazardous situations when scoping out repairs. They often have to go up several storeys, climb scaffolding ladders, access roof lines, look at ice dams, and inspect chimneys. These are all risky situations.

Even some of the most prepared individuals can still be at risk of equipment failure. Although drones are not the end-all-be-all, they can get you to a higher location to examine a structure.

Figure 1: A drone capturing aerial images

We highly recommend retaining a drone operator during claim investigations. Once you’ve screened your drone operators and found the right individual for the job, the drone can be flown close to roof lines and otherwise inaccessible areas. This allows you to determine the extent of damage and assist in evaluations for the rebuilds.

Drones can be flown up to a maximum altitude of 400 feet above the ground for overall site evaluation. Construction firms have recently started implementing professional drones and routine safety inspections. This safety measure is as clever as it is time effective. Hard-to-reach areas pose health and safety risks for construction workers, and drone technology mitigates those risks.

Contractors have begun implementing professional drone operators to pinpoint and locate potential issues far more efficiently, thus gathering the needed site information in a fraction of the time.

Client feedback on using drones in claims

The adjusters and contractors we have worked with love our drone services. However, the most common feedback we have received from individuals includes the following:

  • Fast inspection turnaround – Clients can access site data on the spot and immediately review it on a laptop. This ensures that we’ve captured exactly what we’re looking for, and there’s no delay in the data processing.
  • Massive cost reductions compared to traditional inspection methods.
  • We can assess more claims in a fraction of the time.
  • We can improve claim settlements using enhanced inspection intelligence, owing to higher resolution digital imagery from the drone cameras.
  • We improve the customer experience as we can custom-fly the site for you. We will produce a flight plan from various altitudes, heights, and angles, as needed for the claim. The added benefit of this is a better perspective of the scene.

Our highly experienced team collects photos and videos and is trained to capture evidence that an untrained operator may otherwise miss. We fly orbits, overflights, and systematic grids. Customers are amazed at the clarity of the digital photos and videos we collect.

Information drones can provide

The software we use collects more than just pictures and videos of a scene. It collects incredibly high-quality images of up to 4K resolution. In addition, we can access hard-to-reach areas, which helps adjusters understand the cause of the loss and verify whether there’s coverage for a claim.

Drone deployment accurately documents damage to help contractors and estimators with measurements for rebuilding. The software provides precise measurements and additional data to assist with the scoping and repair estimates.

We automatically capture roof imagery in minutes. We can fly a systematic grid over a site to render and recreate the scene in 2D and 3D modelling.

Figure 2: A 3D model of a property obtained through the DroneDeploy software

Once our team captures aerial imagery of the structure, they can creat a roof report (if needed). When part of the claim, Roof Reports provide accurate square footage, roof features, pitch, surface areas slope, and assists with the rebuild.

The technology we deploy at a scene is the same technology law enforcement has used to recreate collision scenes. The technology reproduces scenes for our clients in a manner that’s unsurpassed in this industry. It is highly defined 2D and 3D modelling, and we can capture a scene in time.

Figure 3: A digital model of a scene

Contractors can obtain highly accurate measurements with the software we use. From the data we collect from the grid flown or any oblique digital photos, we can process the images into a high-resolution digital model for review. We can zoom in and out or rotate that digital model for a site assessment with a client. This allows us to immediately share the data via email, the cloud, or an SD card.

It is crucial to capture evidence before it’s lost. Once the site is turned back over before it’s reproduced in a digital format, the evidence is gone. Thus, it’s imperative to capture the scene as is. With this software, we’re doing exactly that. If a claim ever goes to litigation, we can reproduce this data. This highlights the importance of getting our team to the scene faster.

Figure 4: An example of a 3D map for a scene

3D mapping is very helpful in large losses. We can rotate the model and review it on- or off-site. In large losses or situations where the insured has liability exposure, the evidence must be thoroughly documented in case the claim goes to litigation. By capturing the scene in a 3D model, we do exactly that.

Water claims investigations – thermal imaging

Thermal imaging has been a game-changer for us. It can provide an investigator with otherwise invisible data.

Figure 5: An image of a thermal inspection

Thermal imaging gives you a spectrum that enables the operator to determine where the hotspots and the cold spots are. For example, a leak that the naked eye would not detect can be located by attaching a thermal image to a camera on the drone.

In the image in figure 5, water has penetrated the building and has been heated up. The brighter orange area around the drain indicates this. The scale on the right shows the variant temperature gradient. Purple indicates cooler temperatures, whereas orange means hotter.

From this photograph, we can see where water is penetrating in and around the drain. Without it, we would not be able to determine the scope of that damage.

Case study: Water damage

There was a report of water entering the interior of a very large structure. A drone was employed to determine the area of penetration and the scope of the damage. Damages were visualized using thermal inspection and 3D modelling. These tools allowed us to recreate the building as it was. Additionally, some testing was done to look for water penetration.

Inspection findings

It’s not always obvious where the water travels. However, thermal inspection enabled us to determine the entry into the building and where the water was pooling. This allowed the engineers to determine how much damage had occurred.

The damage was extensive. No sill pan was found, and deep wood rot was discovered in the window frame. The water entry to the structure and the interior damage was located. Our thermal inspection led the structural engineers to the location of the damage. Further investigation revealed that a missing backer rod and improper caulking allowed water infiltration.

To physically inspect a structure this large (over 200,000 ft) would take a lot longer than it did with drone usage. In addition, thermal imaging would readily show cold spots to narrow down the required repair area. With a drone, the inspection was done in under 30 minutes.

Hazardous areas

A site may not be accessible to adjusters. However, our team can put small drones into hard-to-reach places. Then, we can fly small interior drones into those hard-to-reach areas of the structure for inspection. This includes attic crawl spaces, access tunnels, flooded basements, electrical hazards, and chemical hazards.

We can fly into collapsed buildings to assess the damage and discover where it would be unsafe to send an investigator or a structural engineer. The risk to the attending team member is reduced when sending a drone instead of conducting a physical inspection. Time is saved, and efficiencies are identified through this technology deployment.

Wind turbine inspections

Wind turbines have been around for years, but drone deployment in claims involving wind turbines is new. Attempting to reach the top of these structures is extremely time-consuming and risky. Often, a visual inspection of a wind turbine requires ropes.

Using this method, you can inspect two to five turbines per day, and a single turbine inspection could cost $1,500–$2,000. In contrast, drones could inspect 15 to 20 turbines a day, reducing the cost to $300–$500 per inspection.

Case study

Figure 6: A closeup of the wind turbine blades

A Punta Lima, Puerto Rico, wind farm sustained damage as a result of a natural disaster. The wind farm was built in 2013, and the loss occurred in 2017 during hurricane Marie. The wind turbine blades could not withstand wind speeds greater than 209 mph. As a result, the investigators had to determine whether the wind turbine blades were delaminated because of a manufacturer defect or the hurricane.

The blades completely delaminated to the excessive wind speed specs, which exceeded 175–200 mph. It was found that the cause was not a manufacturer defect. Drone inspection revealed that each blade had delaminated after exceeding its maximum wind speed.

Natural disasters

In the case of natural disasters, adjusters are often overwhelmed with multiple claims in a short time. This will stretch your resources to the limit. Therefore, high efficiency and time management are essential for the adjuster or investigator. Drone deployment does exactly this for a site evaluation.

The drone assessment generally does not determine the cause of damage but will more likely show the extent of the damage. In addition, all drone footage can be live-streamed as we fly.

Case study: Wind damage

Figure 7: An aerial drone image of the complex

A complex experienced extensive damage during Hurricane Irma in 2017. The loss occurred in Antigua, and they were insured. As such, they wished to document the damage using drones.

Figure 8: A drone image of the loss

Catastrophe teams are deployed to regions that are devastated by natural disasters. We see increased use of drones with these teams. This provides more relevant claim information and a greater aerial perspective. Moreover, situational awareness of the damage is higher when using drones.

You can assess larger areas and manage the scope of the damage in a shorter time. With drone deployment, we can better evaluate the ground damage in real-time for teams deployed to an area. We’re subsequently able to deploy resources to inaccessible areas. More structures are examined per day, and the large-scale collection and flow of information are done in a shorter time when drones are deployed.

In claims involving natural disasters, the scope is massive. Drones will help insurance inspectors improve safety by gathering the data more efficiently and jumpstarting efforts to rebuild the affected areas.

Large- or small-scale fire scenes or explosions

We do both large- and small-scale fires, whether structural, residential, and/or large-block fires. We have seen more requests for drone deployments in these areas as well.

Thorough inspection

Figure 9: A drone capturing images at a scene

The roof should be inspected for damages. The roof structure may be compromised, making physical inspection impossible. There may even be structural steel or iron that’s compromised. It could be too high and destabilized. We can fly close to the structure and collect video evidence.

Several parts of the structure may require close inspection. Physical inspection of these parts of the structure requires elevation. However, we can fly the drone within inches of the structure and get the information required.

Forest fires: Fort McMurray drone response

During the wildfires that burned through Fort McMurray in 2016, we used drone deployment to assess the properties in the path of the enormous wildfire. We were able to review customers’ claims just two days after the fires forced the town’s evacuation. Before anyone could enter the site, it was possible to link pictures of the damage and cross reference this with risk modelling and underwriting information.

Drones were used as an extension of other types of visual assessments. Adjusters looked at the status of the evacuations and how quickly the fires were spreading by monitoring social media. The scope was massive, and insurance companies were overwhelmed by claims. Utilizing drones reduced the scope of investigations.

Our drone equipment

Figure 10: A DJI Inspire 2 Drone

We use state-of-the-art equipment with ultrahigh resolution. Our highly responsive aircraft are Transport Canada rated for advanced operations. These drones produce cinema-grade high-definition videos and are very maneuverable. They can fly to virtually any site.

Figure 11: A DJI Mavic drone (Dual Thermal System)

We can use smaller drones, such as the DJI Mavic, for hard-to-reach places.

Figure 12: DJI Matrice 200 (Inspection System)

We also use the rugged all-weather inspection RPAS, thermal imaging sensors, and zoom payloads in our drones.

Key takeaways: The benefits of using drones

  • Access to hard-to-reach places
  • Mitigating risks to personnel and equipment
  • They’re cost-effective
  • Assessment of large areas in a shorter period.
  • Transmission and reproduction of real-time data