Flying masters of disasters

It’s neither a bird, nor a plane. Yet, it’s about to give Superman some serious competition - and not just for attention.

We’ve seen it buzzing overhead, smiled at excited kids pushing buttons maneuvering it, and feigned polite interest when enthusiasts gush about these new race horses. The fun aspect of drones, however, is just a footnote in a much bigger and way more fascinating story.

Officially known as an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), this flying marvel of technology is willing to take on more and more responsibilities.

So far, drones have delivered coffee, food and medicines in Australia, waited on tables in Singapore, transported people in China, tracked sharks in Australian waters and even herded sheep in Ireland.

What’s more, they’re showing immense promise in disaster management, even for insurers. 

A hot topic

The climate is changing. So is the face of natural catastrophes. Wildfires in the Amazon forests are threatening the very lungs of the planet. Fire’s enemy – water - is causing its own damage elsewhere. Hurricane Dorian has opened this year’s North American hurricane season by flooding the Bahamas, claiming nearly 50 lives and displacing as many as 70,000 people. It’s still swirling around, keeping everyone guessing about its deadly path. 

Last but not the least, earthquakes here and floods there are endangering lives and livelihoods of many across the world.

Given this context, digging deeper into what drones can do is becoming increasingly important. “Their application ranges from data-gathering and monitoring to disaster relief and damage assessment after a catastrophe,” says James Van Meter, a drones insurance expert from Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty (AGCS), the corporate insurer of the Allianz group. 

Exploring the opportunities

Admittedly, drones fall short in matching the efficacy of satellite imagery in forecasting adverse weather events. However, when disaster does strike, they are capable of providing valuable assistance.

“Drones cannot necessarily improve storm forecasting but they can help with measurement and tracking,” James says. For example: The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) launched drones into the eye of hurricanes to collect atmospheric data for better storm tracking.

The contribution of these flying devices is more significant in wildfire management. According to James, firefighters use drones to track fires, identify hot spots for better deployment of resources and personnel, and even for prescribed burning. UAVs allow operators to remotely launch incendiary devices for clearing patches that could aid the spread of fire.

“Some drones are also equipped with high-resolution thermal cameras, which can spot humans in the path of fire. Evacuation becomes more efficient in such cases,” he says. 

allianz drone insurance AGCS

Disaster relief

So maybe drones are not quite the crystal-gazers. However, they do have the potential to be heroes after natural catastrophes leave behind broken homes and lives.

“Search-and-rescue operations, disaster relief, delivery of critical supplies such as food, medicine and clean water, there’s so much they can do,” James elaborates. You can trust drones to do a fairly good job of finding people stranded or isolated after disasters. “Where should the first responders go? Drones can tell us with a quick aerial snapshot of a wide zone.” 

In Australia, lifeguards sometimes send drones to deliver life jackets to people in water. Imagine the possibilities in case of floods, earthquakes and hurricanes.  

“Conceptually, it may even be possible someday to send large UAVs to retrieve stranded people after small drones have found them.”

Damage assessment

Drones can go fearlessly where humans hesitate to tread. Therein lies the advantage. 

Government authorities as well as insurers are waking up to the potential of using them to assess post-disaster damages, especially at sites not marked safe for humans to enter. In a pilot program in 2017, AGCS flew 52 drones in areas affected by hailstorms, hurricanes, floods, fires and explosions. “Among these were zones affected by Hurricanes Maria and Harvey and by the earthquake in Mexico,” says Christopher Sheldon, who heads AGCS’s efforts to adopt new technologies for better claims handling. “We also did an aerial survey of the California wineries after the wildfire.”

The team found drones to be efficient damage assessors, reducing costs for the insurer and accelerating the claims process for clients in some cases. For example: they can assess roof damage after hailstorms. 

One area of advancement that the two experts are watching closely is indoor sensor technology. “At the moment, drones cannot be used indoors to study internal damages to properties because they lack the ability to avoid obstacles. This will be an interesting area of development,” Christopher says.

He’s also interested in how solar-powered drones evolve. Currently, the battery life of a small drone is restricted to 30 minutes. UAVs used at construction sites can hover for four-five weeks tops. “Solar-powered drones will have longer operation time. They may be able to monitor sites for up to a year,” he says.

The challenges

However, no technology is without its challenges. Perhaps the biggest one for drones is their inability to stay out of the way of manned aircraft. “During disasters, airspaces are crowded,” James points out. “You have manned aircraft performing search and rescue, military helicopters, national guards, government agencies...you have to ensure that unmanned vehicles don’t collide with them.”

Plus, there are limits to the distance drones can cover. “They cannot fly beyond the operator’s visual line of sight,” Christopher says. “Regulations also have to evolve to facilitate wider adoption of drones. Currently, the maximum altitude allowed is 400 feet, which restricts their usage. You cannot fly them in public spaces or near government facilities and airports or after dark. The challenge for regulators would be to keep the skies uncongested while balancing safety with the needs of different stakeholders,” he finishes.

To know more about drone insurance, click here

To know about Allianz’s involvement in the Drone Racing League, click here

About Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty

Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty (AGCS) is a leading global corporate insurance carrier and a key business unit of Allianz Group. We provide risk consultancy, Property-Casualty insurance solutions and alternative risk transfer for a wide spectrum of commercial, corporate and specialty risks across 12 dedicated lines of business.

Our customers are as diverse as business can be, ranging from Fortune Global 500 companies to small businesses, and private individuals. Among them are not only the world’s largest consumer brands, tech companies and the global aviation and shipping industry, but also wineries, satellite operators or Hollywood film productions. They all look to AGCS for smart answers to their largest and most complex risks in a dynamic, multinational business environment and trust us to deliver an outstanding claims experience.

Worldwide, AGCS operates with its own teams in 34 countries and through the Allianz Group network and partners in over 200 countries and territories, employing over 4,400 people. As one of the largest Property-Casualty units of Allianz Group, we are backed by strong and stable financial ratings. In 2018, AGCS generated a total of 8.2 billion euros gross premium globally.

The Allianz Group is one of the world's leading insurers and asset managers with more than 92 million retail and corporate customers. Allianz customers benefit from a broad range of personal and corporate insurance services, ranging from property, life and health insurance to assistance services to credit insurance and global business insurance. Allianz is one of the world’s largest investors, managing around 673 billion euros on behalf of its insurance customers. Furthermore our asset managers PIMCO and Allianz Global Investors manage more than 1.4 trillion euros of third-party assets. Thanks to our systematic integration of ecological and social criteria in our business processes and investment decisions, we hold the leading position for insurers in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index. In 2018, over 142,000 employees in more than 70 countries achieved total revenues of 131 billion euros and an operating profit of 11.5 billion euros for the group.

These assessments are, as always, subject to the disclaimer provided below.

Press contacts

Heidi Polke
Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty (Munich)
As with all content published on this site, these statements are subject to our cautionary note regarding forward-looking statements:
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