Drones for Risk Improvement?

  • Jaap de Vries, Ph.D. Vice President, Innovation, Science and Technology, FM Global

FM Global's expert view

By now everyone has heard of drones, the devices used for aerial photography, or for military purposes overseas. But what is a drone and why are they so popular? What can a business do with them? How can drones be relevant to FM Global risk improvement efforts?

Let's start with the basics. The word 'drone' is the colloquial term used to refer to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), or unmanned aerial systems (UAS). The latter term refers to the UAV plus the ground control station.

Until recently, the legal use of drones for commercial purposes was limited. Governing bodies were primarily concerned with the security, safety and privacy issues related to commercial use of drones. However, as the rapid advancement of drone technology addressed these concerns and legislation and regulations were enacted, many of these concerns were alleviated and the commercial use of drones increased.

A license to fly
In August 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) started issuing licenses for remote pilots—allowing them to fly under small unmanned aircraft regulations (Part 107), essentially making them commercial drone pilots.

The main restrictions are that the drone remain below 400 feet (122 m) (above ground level or above and close to a tall structure), fly at a maximum speed of 100 mph (161 kph), weigh less than 55 pounds (25 kg), and remain within visible sight of the operator. Also, under Part 107, flights are restricted to uncontrolled (Class G) airspace. For flights in controlled airspace, the operator must petition for a waiver from the FAA.

By opening the airspace to drones for commercial applications, the FAA opened the skies to new drone innovation, allowing drone technology to soar!

Commercial use
Commercial interest in drones depends on the type of industrial use cases for that drone. The two most common business applications for drones are the portability of freight or sensors.

Examples of freight may be the delivery of parcels, pesticides, medicine, or even fire extinguishers. Examples of sensors can be Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR), Infrared (IR), visible, or multispectral hyperspectral cameras. The simplest of these sensors is the visible camera, which captures the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum—roughly 350 to 700 nanometers. These are the cameras on consumer drones that can take pictures and video from above.

Infrared cameras
Cameras that capture longer wavelengths (0.9 – 20 micrometer) are called 'infrared cameras' and can capture gas leaks and other phenomena that are invisible to the human eye. Infrared cameras are also used to study surface temperature to detect, for example, roof irregularities, water damage, subsurface cracks in wind turbine blades, photovoltaic cell failure and powerline junction hotspots.

Multispectral and hyperspectral cameras
Multispectral and hyperspectral cameras break the electromagnetic spectrum into discrete bands—thus adding a third dimension to each image. These 'hypercubes' are spatially resolved spectrographs and can be trained to detect surface materials, perform chemical gas analysis, assist with precision agriculture and help with environmental monitoring. However, most mid-wave hyperspectral cameras can cost roughly US$500,000 so not everyone is comfortable hanging them from a drone.

LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) uses a pulsed laser to measure distance and create 3D representations. It can be used, for instance, to create accurate elevation maps and capture sharp edges on structures or small details on power lines.

An alternative method of creating 3D maps is to reconstruct a scene from collected visible images through a process called 'photogrammetry.' While photogrammetry is less accurate than LIDAR, it has the added advantage of adding texture (RGB information) to each point in the point cloud it generates. 

Drone trends
Most recent case trends in drone use are focusing on new low-altitude traffic management systems that allow drones to fly beyond the operator's line of sight—for instance, to track a power line for several miles. Sensors and sensor integration work continue to improve, and there are initiatives for more advanced mission planning and building of mapping software.

According to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, from 2015 to 2025, drones will create approximately 100,000 new jobs and generate around US$82 billion in economic activity. Equipped with new capabilities such as integrated audio and text with real-time video feeds and the ability to overlay images on existing footage through augmented reality, next-generation drones could have significant commercial value for businesses across industry segments.

Where no person can go
For FM Global clients in high-hazard industries, drones are used to monitor equipment in remote or inaccessible locations. The gathered information is useful in predicting the need for maintenance or replacement of failing equipment. Drones can be used for 3D mapping of client facilities, making them useful for future construction projects.

These devices are also used for monitoring and surveying worksites. Sensors can be used to report on poorly insulated parts of buildings, helping reduce energy costs.

You've probably started to realize some of the benefits drones can have on risk improvements for FM Global clients. Here are some ways FM Global uses this new technology.

Drones and FM Global
FM Global has formed a multi-disciplinary remote sensing task force to investigate the efficacy of remote sensors attached to drones, manned aircraft and satellites. The FM Global innovation team is also working on a proof of concept (POC) to identify the value added from drones.

To do this, several drone missions are planned at FM Global's research campus and other FM Global-owned properties using third-party drone companies. These third-party drone service providers will be evaluated on their merits before the POC is extended to FM Global clients.

Examples of use cases for drones for loss prevention include the development of accurate and localized flood forecasting models, detection of roof health, determining building envelope integrity or the spacing between buildings and vegetation. 

And since new OSHA regulations pose further restrictions on roof access to FM Global field engineers, drones may be able to assist these experts with gathering the relevant roof information to populate a report for risk prevention.

From a claims adjustment perspective, drones could help after a NatHaz catastrophe where knowledge of the damage at a facility is made possible through the data gathered by the sensors/cameras.

"FM Global recognizes that this new disruptive technology is here to stay."

Jaap de Vries, Ph.D., Vice President, Innovation, Science and Technology, FM Global

What does this mean for FM Global clients?
FM Global recognizes that this new disruptive technology is here to stay. Drones have complemented human efforts for many years—serving as 'eyes in the sky' to effectively and efficiently execute various tasks. Their capabilities, which extend beyond those of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, allow drones to:

  • Quickly and easily capture images and videos that are typically difficult to obtain — with minimal human involvement and better image quality.
  • Perform well under challenging conditions such as inclement weather — virtually eliminating risk of injury to humans.
  • Enable organizations and people to share and analyze information in real time to make faster and more informed decisions.

Author Bio
My background is in combustion, propulsion and aerospace engineering. Ten years ago, I was adding nanoparticles to solid rocket propellants to see how they would affect burn characteristics and performance. When I started working for FM Global nine years ago, I never thought that I would use my aerospace background for insurance purposes. That is what I love about FM Global—our focus on science and engineering is unparalleled. I love working on the leading edge of technology to see how it can help prevent losses for our clients.

Connect with Jaap de Vries, Ph.D, on LinkedIn.

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