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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 .