Technology Drones Onward and Upward

One thing is certain: Technology moves at an exponential pace. In the last century, humankind took to the skies when the Wright brothers took the first flight off the dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, USA, to the birth of the commercial airline industry to humankind's arrival on the surface of the moon.

Today, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, are taking to the sky. And as industries of all types search for more efficient ways to manage supply chains, automate warehouse management, deliver packages, snap aerial photographs, and inspect property, many are achieving success with drones.

In the race for better, faster service, mega retailers, for example, seek logistics improvements through the use of drone; and some processing plants use drones to create 3-D mapping of their equipment.

This new aerial technology is also useful in surveying construction sites and assessing solar-panel fields, and even in mining operations. Drones are also beneficial in examining oil pipelines and power lines.

An insurer of organizations that use, or are likely to use, drones, FM Global continually watches for new applications of this technology—and will closely monitor associated risks, as well.

Although there is no substitute to inspecting property with the human eye, drones have the ability to go where a person could encounter danger. Rather than stand on a scaffold, for example, inspectors can now fly camera-equipped drones to heights that enable them to look for roof imperfections, such as loose roofing panels, that could ensue in a serious loss, if left unchecked. Drones can help safely complete such an inspection.

FM Global is also investigating applications related to its business processes, particularly for risk evaluations performed by field engineers. On a frigid morning last December, a team of engineers simulated aspects of a visit to a client facility—using the FM Global Research Campus in Rhode Island (USA) as the pseudo client.

The team was able to conduct core functions that focused on natural hazard and external exposures—by obtaining pictures and videos using a drone with a 4K resolution camera. After several flight missions, the team was able to analyze roof construction, rooftop equipment, flood exposure, outdoor storage and maximum foreseeable loss (MFL) space separation—and gain access to areas that could not be reached by foot.

Dr. Jaap de Vries, an FM Global lead research scientist, says, "Drones can help survey a client's facilities or facilitate roof inspections. Separation clearances from outside storage or brush can more easily be evaluated. Drones equipped with infrared cameras could detect water-damaged roofs, or malfunctioning or damaged photovoltaic cells."

According to de Vries, commercial drone operators must be licensed by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). "This requires passing a rigorous aeronautical knowledge test covering topics such as airspace classification and aviation weather," says de Vries. "Commercial UAV operations are led by a pilot in command (PIC), who could enlist help from one or more visual observers to keep the drone within line of sight." 

Jeff Haner, a Gartner analyst who tracks the insurance sector, says drones will significantly improve support for underwriting and claims handling, especially for natural disasters. For FM Global, this technology may be around the corner for use with sketch development, catastrophe response and claims management, and for understanding the risk at remote sites. But matters such as business value, safety, training, regulations and licensing must first be addressed.

Those who couldn't imagine a computer to fit in the palm of their hand just 10 years ago, should check their smartphones for an update on the next drone development.

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