Drones, Phones and Disaster Zones

By Damon Poeter

People who lose everything in a flood or a wildfire have their worlds turned upside down. If you haven’t experienced it, you can only imagine what it’s like to suddenly become homeless, unsure of where your next meal will come from or worried about whether friends and relatives are safe.

Getting help quickly and efficiently to people devastated by a natural disaster is critical. If you’re an older person, or you have a disability or small children, you’ve probably thought about how difficult and scary those first few days and weeks of picking up the pieces would be.

Even after the first responders and rescue workers do their jobs, there’s plenty of work to do to help those affected by a hurricane, wildfire or other natural disaster. Imagine yourself in a situation where you suddenly can’t get near your home, your car is miles away and underwater, and you and your family are stuck in a shelter or a motel until you can put your life back together.

Settling Claims Faster with Technology

It’s important for insurers to quickly settle the claims for those who’ve been devastated. Getting a claim settled not only gets folks started on the road to recovery, but it can provide much-needed financial help as they scramble for living accommodations, transportation, meals, kids’ needs and more.

The good news is that insurers like USAA are using technology to help speed up the process of paying homeowners who are hit hard by destructive events like Hurricane Harvey and the California wildfires.

 “USAA is constantly providing the best service we can to members. Anytime a major catastrophe is looming like a hurricane, we ask ourselves how can we help members,” says Kristina Tomasetti, strategic innovation director, Property and Casualty (P&C) Claims Innovation at USAA. 

Technology’s Possibilities and Limits

Just as insurers are beginning to use on-the-spot photos of car accident damage taken on cell phones to jump-start the claims process, USAA is leveraging high-definition aerial photography and computer technology to speed up the home insurance claim process after natural disasters.

Using a combination of drones and small aircraft to conduct aerial imaging surveys, USAA can assess damage and pay out compensation in hard-hit areas faster than ever.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved the use of drones for insurance inspections in 2015. Unfortunately, the drones insurers can deploy for this purpose are of limited use for assessing damage in large, inaccessible areas. That’s because FAA rules require the drone operators to maintain a line of sight with the small consumer-class drones used for aerial inspections.

To achieve total aerial coverage over large flooded or burned areas, USAA uses drones in a limited capacity. It mainly relies on trusted third-party contractors to fly small aircraft over the area, capturing thousands of aerial photos, which are then meticulously examined to identify policyholders’ homes and their state of damage.

The upshot is that Tomasetti and her team have pioneered a new way to assess property damage via aerial photography and to use their results to streamline the claims process. This  was a huge help for people in recent destructive hurricane events like Harvey, Irma and Maria because on-the-ground claims adjustors often can’t access devastated areas for days or even weeks after the storm has passed.

Previously, people who lost homes in a disaster would have to wait for an adjustor to get to their residence to assess damage after roads had been cleared and access to the area was permitted. But now, by using aerial photography to determine whether a structure is a total loss, USAA can greenlight a claim settlement without ever sending an adjustor to the address, Tomasetti says. 

Helping with Loss, Offering Hope

“Harvey was very challenging because people were evacuated for much longer than other disasters,” she says. “We started using small aircraft to capture aerial imagery to see if members’ homes were intact, inundated or in what sort of condition.”

Utilizing this aerial imaging strategy, USAA was able to provide faster service for members affected by the three major hurricanes of 2017. But it was in the aftermath of California’s record wildfire season that this new streamlined inspection process really started to move the dial, according to Tomasetti.

“With the wildfires, we did the same thing,” she says. “We flew a Cessna over, took aerial images and were able to identify members’ homes. We were able to confirm with visual evidence if a home was a total loss. So, based just on this visual confirmation, we were able to immediately resolve claims for 100% compensation for dwelling loss and 75% compensation for the contents of the home.

“We’re really happy with our ability to deliver compensation much faster than any company out there, which requires a person to visit properties on the ground. With the wildfires, no one had access to some of those areas for weeks.”

But helping those who’ve lost a home recover isn’t the only bright spot. USAA was also able to deliver good news to members whose homes survived the fires.

“Calling someone about the total loss of their home is tough; it’s heartbreaking. But letting somebody know that their house is still standing is a really nice feeling,” Tomasetti says. 

USAA has also decided to go above and beyond with the results of their aerial imaging project. The P&C Claims Innovation team created a handy publicly accessible online mapping tool that shows before-and-after imagery of areas hit by Harvey, Irma and Maria. 

Interested in learning how to better prepare for the financial hit of a natural disaster? Check out some tips for building your very own emergency fund.

Kristina Tomasetti is the strategic innovation director of P&C Claims Innovation at USAA. With nearly two decades of experience in the insurance industry, Kristina has progressed from an entry-level position as a claims adjuster to leadership roles at USAA. In her current role as a leader of some of USAA’s most cutting-edge business transformation projects, Kristina has overseen the company’s drone program and is helping to integrate machine learning and artificial intelligence into the insurance and claims industry. Kristina holds a bachelor of science degree from Virginia Tech and master of science from Troy University.

 

 

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