Grinnell Mutual UAS program takes off

Tornado sirens blared, sending people to basements across Central Iowa — including in Grinnell — on July 19, 2018. That Thursday, the National Weather Service in Des Moines issued 16 tornado warnings.

In all, those summer storms spawned 19 tornadoes — including two EF-2s and two EF-3s.

While Grinnell was spared, the cities of Marshalltown, Pella, and Bondurant all suffered direct hits. Fortunately, there were no fatalities and just a few dozen injuries, but the storms caused significant property damage to homes, businesses, and vehicles.

In the hours following the storm, Grinnell Mutual’s claims team sprang into action.

Scott Poore, a large-loss property field adjuster, packed his equipment and headed for Marshalltown. In addition to his laptop, he took his drone and the tablet that helps fly it.

“What's nice about the drone is that we can knock out an average inspection within about 15 minutes,” said Poore, who has adjusted claims since 2004 and joined Grinnell Mutual’s claims team in 2016.

Without a drone, a roof inspection can take up to two hours.

“With the drone, I have the data right there. I can look at it on-site and actually make some decisions on the spot, which is nice,” said Poore. “Our policyholders and contractors have trusted the data and found that it is accurate.

“It makes us feel like we're doing our job and getting policyholders taken care of. We're making good on the promise we make to our policyholders.”

an expanding market

Humans have experimented with unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) for millennia, dating back to Chinese lanterns in the third century.

Today, there are over 1 million drones registered with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the United States. A 2016 report by Goldman Sachs expects that commercial businesses and civilian government entities will spend $13 billion on drones by 2020 — including $1.4 billion by property-casualty companies and third parties for use in insurance claims.

2017 article in The Economist attributes the take-off in commercial drone activity to tremendous competition in the consumer market. Market demands have led private investors and venture capitalists to make significant investments in drone builders. This combination of competition and capital has driven innovation to the point that some drone experts believe that civilian drones are more technologically advanced than ones used in the military.

Better information, faster service

Drones are relatively new tools for insurance claims professionals. Until 2015, property adjusters used their eyes and their ladders — a 10,000-year-old technology — in the claims process.

A drone not only allows for faster adjusting but performs roof inspections more accurately.

In a typical non-drone roof inspection, an adjuster climbs a ladder and marks a test square on each slope of the roof, then counts the number of hail strikes within the test square.

It’s an imperfect process. Insurance companies know that in many cases, they have paid replacement costs that are far above a pre-loss condition.

For policyholders, the sooner their insurer can make them whole, the better.

Grinnell Mutual’s drone journey

After about a year of research, Grinnell Mutual’s drone program really took flight March 20, 2018, with the first claim inspection by drone.

“Taking care of our customers is our number one priority,” said Paul Boonstra, a director of commercial claims. “Drones provide our claims team with the ability to get a detailed look at the damages while safely on the ground.”

Since launching its drone program, 15 employees have gotten an FAA remote pilot’s license and have completed 180 flights. The average inspection time for a property claim has been reduced by roughly 90 minutes.

Earlier this year, Poore had a claim and needed to inspect 26 condominiums in Mt. Vernon, Iowa.

“Normally, that inspection would take me at least two days,” said Poore. “With the drone, I was actually able to inspect all the buildings in six hours.”

How it works

To perform an inspection by drone, an adjuster uses a tablet and special software to set coordinates and designate a flight path for the drone. The drone passes over the building, taking a series of high resolution photos, which are then blended into a single, composite image of the entire roof.

This detailed aerial image helps the adjuster determine any storm-related damage and can even help the adjuster see hail impact marks on the roof.

“The drone gives us the best information to make a decision,” said Poore. “We aren't just looking at one part of the roof. It helps us make sure we're identifying what has happened to this roof and how it has been affected by the storm, wind, and hail.”

The detail of data has surprised adjusters, policyholders, and their agents, said Boonstra. But the imagery has helped create clarity — and trust.

“Our adjusters do a great job involving the customer in the process by allowing the customer to see the drone photos as soon as they are completed,” Boonstra said. “This convinces most customers that an accurate inspection can be completed with the drone,” said Boonstra.

Safety first

“After natural disasters, claims adjusters inspect roofs and other structures which may have damage,” said Christopher Hackett of the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America. “Drones reduce the need for the adjuster to get on a ladder, which reduces the possibility of a fall injury.”

Poore knows this first-hand. During a roof inspection in Harlan, Iowa, Poore had gotten out his ladder but ended up using the drone instead.

“As I was conducting the roof inspection, a contractor who had just looked at the roof told me that I was lucky that I didn’t get on the roof because it was completely rotted out.

“Had I tried to step off my ladder, I would have gone through the roof. The drone saved me from a pretty serious injury.”

Expanding uses

Roof inspections are the primary use for drones by insurance companies, according to a 2017 Accenture report. However, insurers are exploring how they can use drones for both pre-loss and post-loss applications.

Carriers have used drones to perform inspections to price risks properly and even to monitor natural disasters.

Grinnell Mutual is continuing to evaluate its drone program to determine more ways the technology can better serve customers.

In the meantime, Poore doesn’t need any convincing that drones are the way forward.

“Drones really allow us to serve more customers, more quickly,” said Poore. “The feeling you get when you restore somebody that's been through something that's been truly traumatic to them — that is something I love about my work.

“A drone allows me to do that right away.”