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Drones Rush in Where Angels Fear to Tread

July 26, 2016
Drones are used for inspection of hazardous structures
Drones are used for inspection of hazardous structures

The clue is in the name – or rather the change of name. What we used to know as an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) was a wondrously complex device, with a price tag to match, that was exclusively the province of the armed and security forces. Now, though, recreational drones, as we call them these days can be bought for a few hundred bucks, and even quite sophisticated units, equipped with gimballed cameras and advanced telemetry, are available in the low thousands. Adding features like thermal imaging and geo-mapping will set you back a bit more, but for a few thousand dollars you’ll end up with a vehicle that can perform a wide variety of surveillance functions that have nothing to do with conflict and warfare. Contemporary flight management systems and software allow these vehicles to be operated with modest levels of training.

The third party risks of amateurs operating drones for fun have received plenty of exposure, but their ability to survey structures and regions inaccessible to or unsafe for humans is less well canvassed. The insurance industry, though, is among the first to put this new capability to productive use. Of course the use of light aircraft, helicopters and blimps in service of the insurance industry is not new. But these types of vehicle are orders of magnitude more expensive than drones have become, and their scope is of course restricted by consideration of the safety of their crew.

Drone applications in the insurance field include:

  • Post-catastrophe damage assessment leading to faster claim settlement
  • Surveillance of areas affected by airborne pathogens such as chemicals, radiation or biohazards
  • Topographical surveillance of areas at risk of or affected by flood or earthquake.
  • Inspection of structures where human access would require time-consuming assembly of ladders, scaffolding and safety apparatus. Drone costs are so low that even the hire costs of these facilities can exceed the price of a drone inspection.

Notwithstanding all these advantages, drone use is still a vexed question for the safety authorities, who struggle to keep up with the pace of drone development. Advances in sensor technology are making drone use safe in areas where it has hitherto been banned, and CASA is preparing to release regulatory changes later this year which reflect these improvements.