Next step for claims drones: Automated flight

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The use of drones to collect claims images from hard-to-reach places has grown exponentially since insurers began exploring the technology seriously only a few years ago. The movement has benefited from a number of developments over that time. For example, federal aviation regulators have taken several actions to lower barriers to entry, and the hardware has advanced quickly while prices have fallen. And the next major innovation is not far off: Like cars, drones are moving in a driverless direction.

“With the increasing automation and software sophistication in drones, you can literally have the drone fly itself over the property and take all the photos,” says Patrick Gee, senior vice president of claim at Travelers. “It’s incumbent to us to look out on the future and plan very carefully based on how we see things evolving.”

Automated flight, or geofencing, can reduce insurers’ dependence on pilot training to use drones at the time of claim. Instead of requiring a person to perform the dual task of flying a drone while finding the right images to take, a computer can be programmed to put up a virtual “fence,” including ceiling and flight boundaries, freeing a claims adjuster to concentrate on getting the right images.

“We are planning autopilot drone tests with our Tokyo team and with our New York team,” says Max Kusutani, head of digital innovation R&D for Tokio Marine. “In the short term we can decrease our expense, and we can provide more competitive service to our customers.

While geofencing is a major boon to drone strategies, there’s still a need to ensure safe operation of the technology, Gee says. Travelers plans to have more than half of their 1,500 claim professionals trained by mid-2018 at its Claims University near its Connecticut headquarters. While Travelers sees automated flight making those jobs easier, it’s still important to have a human pilot ready to take over if things go haywire, he explains.

“We don’t see the need for manual flight disappearing immediately,” Gee says. “For now, everyone who is control of a drone needs to work within the FAA regulations and pass the ground test. If there is some need to take over, we want to be ready.”

However, Gee agrees that reducing the in-flight responsibilities for claims adjusters is important to drones paying off in reduced claim cycle time. The combination of drones, other geospatial techniques like satellite images and increased sensor and weather data makes pinpointing high-claim areas and getting to a resolution faster.

“The people we’ve trained to be our drone pilots are the same property claim experts that work with our customers to bring them back to pre-loss conditions,” Gee says. “It makes a lot of sense for us to enable our claim pros with this tech.”

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