While Erie made significant progress in using drones this year, there’s still a lot of untapped potential, says Gary Sullivan, VP of subrogation claims. That’s because not only are insurers looking for a good solution to the problem of adjudicating unsafe or otherwise difficult claims, but the underlying technology is firmly in place to make the transition quick.

“It’s a tool in the toolbox that has a lot of promise,” Sullivan says. “There are engineering firms that help serve the property claims industry that have received approval. There are carriers waiting for the FAA to come out with new regulations so they can frame a program on their own. And there are companies out that are developing applications for drone operators that are so advanced, in my humble opinion, we haven’t had the need to go outside of what’s provided by them.”

The company received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to test drones for claims use in April. By September, it was using one to look at the roof of a house that had filed a claim. The commitment is intense. Regulation continues to evolve around the commercial use of drones, which can’t be used within five miles of an airport and require public permission to use other airspace at times. Drones have to be registered with the FAA like any other aircraft. Also, at least one member of the team has to be a certified pilot.

And though the drone program resides mostly on the claims side right now, Erie’s team is cross-functional, representing the fact that the technology will feed data into several different areas of the business, including loss control, which is a focus area for the business.

“We have a district sales manager, someone from IT, someone from the sales side who will definitely help us understand the loss control side,” Sullivan says. “It’s truly a collaborative effort for everyone.”

The effort is worth it, though, Sullivan says, simply because of the maturation of the imaging technology. In fact, he says, the biggest challenge Erie and other carriers face is simply housing all the high-quality digital images that will come in from increasing drone flights, and figuring out how to make that data actionable. That means that even traditional insurance technology vendors have a vested interest in seeing how drone use evolves and must be cognizant of how it fits into their systems.

“We have an operating platform with [claims technology vendor] Symbility, and I brought this to their attention,” Sullivan says. But for the time being, he says, there’s lots to gain from the built-in technologies that come with the craft. “The drones that we fly are the DJI Phantom 2 and 3, and the 3 has more capability added to its iPhone application – you can set up a geofence to track the flight and stay within height restrictions,” he says. “What I see as a challenge for the insurance industry is getting the imagery and storing it.”

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