Commercial drones proving their worth in disaster relief

October 9, 2017

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Insurers and utilities have deployed drone technology to help meet incredible demands. Will other enterprises follow?

Today, 12 years after Hurricane Katrina, US insurers are once again inundated with property damage claims—this time from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. And more storms are being forecasted.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita together triggered 930,000 property damage claims after they hit Louisiana in 2005. Claims for Harvey and Irma have totaled 741,433 as of September 30, 2017. No claims count information is available on Maria, but damage estimates range as high as $85 billion, with Puerto Rico suffering 85 percent of the losses.

More details available here: Florida Office of Insurance Regulation; Consumer Federation of America; Air Worldwide.

Given that 2017’s hurricanes have been coming in bunches, insurers don’t have enough claims adjusters to meet the demand. As a result, insurers welcome any way they can extend the reach of the adjuster workforce, and that’s where drones come in. This time around, some carriers are using drones in ways they haven’t been able to before. Insurers can process three house claims in an hour with the help of drones, compared with three house claims a day without, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

  • Allstate estimates it will conduct thousands of inspection flights a week, once it ramps up.
  • Travelers sent 65 drone-operating agents to Houston after Harvey, and the company plans to train 600 agents to use drones by early in 2018.
  • USAA also has in-house drone operators, but is using drone service provider Datawing Global to assist with damage assessments for claims adjustment.

For its part, the Federal Aviation Administration quickly issued 132 airspace authorizations after Irma, and 127 authorizations have served eight different industries after Harvey. Utility industry drone activity was significant in Florida, after 36 percent of the state’s electricity customers were without power on September 13. The FAA pointed out that Florida Power & Light Company had 49 different drone survey teams active after Irma, and some began operations only an hour after storm winds subsided.

Drone services are evolving quickly to meet utility industry needs. The Jacksonville Electric Authority (JEA) enlisted the help of eSmart Systems to restore power after widespread outages in the wake of Irma. eSmart uses specially configured pickup trucks, each of which can ready and launch a drone from the truck bed automatically. The drones themselves have image recognition intelligence to recognize power-line system components—including insulators, top hats, and masts—so utilities such as the JEA can quickly learn the extent of the damage and alert their crews to hazardous situations.

Enterprises should keep in mind that once they do decide to use drone-based inspection, the data collection, management, and analytics challenges that are part and parcel of digitized inspection services begin.

For this reason, San Diego Gas & Electric asked PwC to help with an integrated strategy for a drone data acquisition and data lifecycle management capability.  Improved processes from this kind of holistic approach clear a path to extensive transmission network visibility, extending the reach of operations and maintenance personnel. The workforce and infrastructure both become more resilient, and the company’s risk mitigation becomes more feasible.

Considering the amount of activity drones have been associated with after these hurricanes, it will be interesting to see if a larger percentage of enterprises begin to use drone services. In PwC’s most recent Global Digital IQ Survey, only 5 percent of executives surveyed said they’re making significant investments today in drone technology.

Could your organization use drones to become more efficient and effective? Drones promise benefits in a range of industries where the technology can help people to design, inspect, survey, or respond in expansive, challenging surroundings.

A few examples beyond insurance and utilities include the following:

Sector Use case
Local government Pomerania Province in Poland relied on PwC’s Drone Powered Solutions Group to get quick assessments after August 2017 storms tore the roofs off 3,000 buildings and caused other extensive damage, killing six and injuring 50. The drone surveys allowed first responders to examine the extent of the damage, get to hard-to-reach places and allowed the provincial government to make prompt, informed rescue, relief and recovery decisions.
Construction materials Atlas Sand & Rock (a subsidiary of Eucon Corporation) estimates a labor cost savings of 84 percent when using Kespry Drone 2s to inventory hundreds of acres of materials stockpiles instead of using conventional tripod-mounted survey equipment and having humans move the equipment on foot from place to place.
Firefighting Boeing subsidiary Insitu is developing drone-based augmented reality overlay technology that will enable firefighters to see critical terrain features regardless of the visibility, avoid hot spots, and maintain 360-degree awareness of the changing footprint of the fire they’re confronting.
Healthcare Johns Hopkins University is testing longer-range hybrid drones that have temperature-controlled cargo bays. These drones could retrieve blood samples from remote areas or deliver critical medical supplies to those same areas.
Civil engineering Engineering consultancy Arcadis compared 3DR’s drone-based site scan approaches with conventional site survey methods when preparing plans for Qatar’s Orbital Highway and concluded that the drone-based methods were 10 times as efficient as the ground-based methods. The drone-based methods also were millions of data points more accurate.

While some of these examples are still being developed, others are ready for enterprises to take advantage of them. The availability of the technology is no longer a gating factor. Instead, enterprises should consider which solutions are the best for the situation, given the numerous safety, regulatory, governance, and practical operational issues.



Chris Curran

Principal and Chief Technologist, PwC US Tel: +1 (214) 754 5055 Email

Vicki Huff Eckert

Global New Business & Innovation Leader Tel: +1 (650) 387 4956 Email

Mark McCaffery

US Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) Leader Tel: +1 (408) 817 4199 Email