Drone fleets survey Houston to calculate the cost of Storm Harvey

Insurance companies are flying fleets of drones over areas affected by Storm Harvey in an attempt to assess how many billions of dollars in damage they will be forced to pay out once the rain has cleared.

“Harvey is an opportunity to see whose drones are capable and whose are merely toys,” said George Mathew, chairman and chief executive of Kespry, a drone company based in Menlo Park, California. “Harvey is a seminal moment for the industry.”

Harvey marks the second major hurricane since the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) loosened restrictions on drones last June, allowing greater use for filming, inspecting facilities and other commercial activities.

Thousands of people have since obtained FAA certificates allowing them to fly drones commercially, and more than 770,000 drones have been registered with the FAA to fly in US airspace.

Consumers in the US have also been obliged to register all drones over a certain size since December 2015. However, these rules were successfully challenged in court earlier this year thereby removing the mandatory requirement.

AT&T said on Wednesday that it had begun using a fleet of 25 drones to look at cellphone towers in south-eastern Texas, including Corpus Christi, that were hit by the hurricane.

High-definition cameras on the drones allow AT&T engineers to look at damage to antennas and cables in areas where cell towers may not be reachable because of flooding, the company said.

Allstate Corp, the second-largest property insurer in Texas behind State Farm, expects its drone fleet to make at least thousands of flights a week in the damaged areas once its claims processing becomes fully operational, company spokesman Justin Herndon said.

Some commercial drone launches have been delayed, however, because the FAA has restricted the airspace in and around Houston to rescue aircraft. Harvey has triggered catastrophic flooding in the city.

Once the airspace is cleared, the sky is expected to buzz with activity and potential danger as commercial users and hobbyists converge.

“It is legal, so many more people are flying them commercially,” said Mark McKinnon, a partner at law firm Dentons US LLP.

AT&T said it was complying with all federal guidelines for safe and legal flight in the disaster area.

Obstacle avoidance technology in the newest drones and the ability to set exact flight parameters with global positioning, known as GEO-fencing, should minimise crashes that may have been unavoidable a few years ago, said Ryan Baker, CEO of Houston-based drone company Arch Aerial.

Goldman Sachs has estimated that industries such as construction, agriculture and insurance will spend $13bn on commercial drones between 2016 and 2020.

Farmers Insurance, the third-largest property insurer in Texas, plans to use Kespry drones to assess damage in a joint effort with on-the-ground claims adjusters. Kespry drones fit in a suitcase-size case packed in the trunk of a claims adjuster’s car.

Once on site, claims adjusters unpack the fully assembled drones and, using their iPads, launch them. Each drone has to remain in the line of sight of a claims adjuster while flying below 120 metres, according to FAA rules.

About five minutes later, the data collected by the drone is scanned and ready to be processed by the insurance company, Kespry’s Mathew said. Kespry is equipping nearly 10 insurance companies with drones in the areas ravaged by Harvey to help gather information to process claims.

Farmers Insurance said a drone could help a claims adjuster process three houses in an hour. Without a drone, only about three houses could be processed in a day.

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