We recently caught up with Graham Brown, CEO of drone trade body ARPAS, to talk about the future of commercial drones, the acceptance of their benefits in the business world and what ARPAS is doing to ‘normalise’ their presence in all our lives.
Sometimes it takes an outsider to recognise the opportunity in a market and, more importantly, help realise that opportunity.
Drones tend to be viewed in the extremes – either as a hobby toy or as military hardware. And while they are both, they are increasingly making their presence felt in the commercial world. While these inroads are more like footpaths (relative to the opportunity) the commercial application of drone technology is growing all the time, supported by the Association of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (ARPAS).
Headed up by industry-outsider Graham Brown, ARPAS is the non-profit professional body and trade association for the commercial drone market, focusing its energies on raising awareness of drones in business and engaging with regulators and Government to create the necessary physical and regulatory infrastructure to allow them to flourish.
While his professional background is in finance and technology rather than the drone community, Graham has become a rapid and keen convert.
“ARPAS is the not for profit trade association looking after the drone economy and ecosystem and when I joined, they were looking for someone who would be completely unbiased and work with all sectors of the market and Government,” says Graham.
His business background and his collaborative approach puts Graham in an excellent position to take a practical (but passionate) view of the role drones will play in all our lives.
“Drones are tools in the commercial world, and they happen to be very flexible. But one of the main reasons I believe every business should look at them is that if you have people working at height, or people working in hazardous environments, you have a responsibility to consider using a drone.”
“If you had someone working for you who fell from a height, injuring themselves or worse, and a drone could have done that job …” He drifts off letting the sentiment speak for itself.
“In most use cases drones will be safer, faster, cheaper, and often greener than the current alternatives”
For Graham, it is a no-brainer that businesses of all shapes and sizes, up and down the country, should be exploring the use of drones, particularly where workers are at height or in a hazardous environment. The question needs to be asked “Can that task be achieved by a drone and avoid the risk of working at height?” For many inspection tasks, the answer will be yes.
In most use cases drones will be safer, faster, cheaper, and often greener than the current alternatives. Beyond the obvious safety benefits, he says there are four key areas where drones are being or will be used extensively over the coming years.
“The number one use today is in data capture, using drones in surveys and inspections to collect all the necessary information,” he says.
“This includes their extensive use in construction, civil engineering, oil and gas, utilities, news reporting, media and film. The list is nearly endless and already impacts our lives, but we are still only at the start of the journey.”
The second area is the transportation of people via air taxis and buses.
“This is often referred to as Urban Air Mobility (UAM) and the intention will be to have services covering local and regional transport that deliver a greener alternative to current options. This won’t happen overnight, but it will happen,” says Graham.
The third area is freight – everything from large unmanned cargo planes to packages being delivered locally to customers and there have been trials of delivering everything from food to vital health supplies around the world. The UK has some of the busiest airspace in the world so ensuring these activities are carried out safely will take some time but again, but Graham is confident it will happen.
The fourth, and most exciting area, is ‘drones that do’. By this Graham means drones that perform a specific task beyond flight such as washing the windows of a high-rise office block or spraying crops in a much more selective, precise manner.
“Think of flying robots that can perform tasks. Those examples are simple but this area will expand as innovation kicks in,” he says.
“We are pushing some boundaries but the key thing we need to focus on is influencing the regulations and legislation”
And it seems that it is not only Graham who is getting excited by the possibilities here. Leeds University has experimented using 3D printers and drones to locate and make small repairs and Michigan State University has tested using a drone to find and replace damaged roof shingles and autonomously make repairs.
“There will be things we haven’t thought of yet, but it is the mix of drones and robotics that will create the market of drones that do,” he says.
But regardless of how drones are currently used or will be in the future, there is, Graham says, one constant: “Drones are faster, safer and cheaper, and often greener.”
His conviction that drones will become an integral part of our everyday lives is persuasive, but it does beg the question as to why we are still waiting for it to become a reality.
The reason for the delay is pretty much why ARPAS exists.
“We are pushing some boundaries but the key thing we need to focus on is influencing the regulations and legislation to focus on the imperatives for the use of drones in the future.
“We have to build some of the wider infrastructure before we can safely have thousands of drones out there. It is about building systems to monitor their use and if we don’t want to be behind the curve, we need to get some of that in place now, with dedicated test areas and proper funding,” he says.
“We are at the very start of the curve with a lot of companies using drones, but they are not using them everywhere”
He says that by engaging with the CAA and Government, ARPAS is helping to establish an environment in which drones can thrive.
“We are getting behind drones but in a way that makes sure their adoption is done in a safe way and where public sentiment is supportive,” he says.
But even if the correct, safe environment is established, businesses themselves have to be convinced of their merits. While various organisations from insurers and construction firms to local authorities and police forces have started using drone technology, it is not yet pervasive. And this, according to Graham, presents a challenge.
“Business buy-in is crucial,” he says, explaining that some still view drones as a toy rather than a business tool.
“The whole appreciation of safer, faster, cheaper hasn’t quite penetrated. We are at the very start of the curve with a lot of companies using drones, but they are not using them everywhere,” he says.
“There are some exceptions, but for most businesses, they are getting some but not all of the benefits.”
He points out that while they are being used effectively by many companies, the emergency services and search and rescue organisations, until the capabilities are integrated across the whole operation, the full benefits will not be realised.
For example, some insurers are using drones in claims, but they are not currently using them in building surveys, a use that also has applications beyond the insurance industry.
“Maintenance teams are usually reactive but by deploying drones, across all the assets they manage, they could get all the external surveys done and analyse the data.
“The comparison between past and current images and data can be reviewed and the exceptions rather than the whole asset base would be the target of preventative maintenance to help drive efficiencies. I appreciate this is a simplified view of the activity, but I hope it makes the point. Opportunities exist for change to deliver safer, faster and cheaper ways of working,” he says.
He adds that it is not until we achieve the extensive use of drones, that we can say we are properly using them.
While Graham and ARPAS relish the challenge of creating the physical and cultural environment that will allow drones to thrive, there is an awareness that the destiny of drones is not entirely in their hands.
“This is not one sector’s problem on its own. To get to the point where drones are used throughout industry, everyone needs to get together to drive this,” says Graham.
For what started out as a niche plaything for flight enthusiasts, the penetration of drones into the commercial world is accelerating at rapid pace.
It’s not just the headline-grabbing Amazon delivery proposal – it’s everything from farming, utilities and insurance to the emergency services, engineering and even acting as a temporary mobile phone mast.
But one area where they are starting to make real inroads, and where the cost effectiveness and accessibility they bring is urgent, is in construction and building, in particular, council-owned buildings.
The anniversary of the Grenfell Tower tragedy has just passed but the work to make tower blocks across the country safe, and avoid a repeat, is still to be completed. This is despite the fact there is a real urgency to inspect the buildings, understand the risk and map out a remediation plan for each one.
It’s not surprising that we find ourselves in this situation. It is a pretty monumental undertaking and the planning alone takes time never mind the practicalities of erecting the scaffolding at each site and getting all the necessary paperwork in place to do so.
And when public funds are at stake, it is incumbent upon those responsible for using the funds, to do so in the most cost-effective way possible. Thankfully, councils seem to be acutely aware of this and many are starting to wake up to the possibilities that drones open up for them.
Iprosurv was instructed on an 15 story high rise where the cladding is falling away from the base structure. This is creating obvious health and safety issues but as the cladding falls away, moisture creeps in threatening to compromise the integrity of the building.
To satisfy insurance requirements, the managers of the building had to undertake a thorough inspection of the property to identify and quantify the risk and put a remediation plan in place. For a multitude of reasons, time was of the essence.
Getting the scaffolding up around the building to conduct a detailed inspection would have taken weeks if not months so they looked to other solutions and found Iprosurv.
We were able to secure the area, send a drone up, get detailed imagery of the damage to the façade and, using thermal imagery, pinpoint where moisture had seeped into the fabric of the building.
From this, the client was able to prioritise the remediation and pull together a plan to take to their insurer to ensure that the building could be made safe and satisfy the insurance requirements. And of equal importance, all this was made possible with zero disruption to residents in the building or the surrounding area.
From instruction to delivery of all the data to the client, including a high definition 3D model, took eight days and cost 1% of what it would have cost to erect the scaffolding.
While this is just one instruction on one building in one council on one insurer’s portfolio, if we were to extrapolate those time and fiscal savings across the portfolio of buildings that require inspection, the savings would be monumental.
It is very encouraging to see more and more insurers and councils explore the possibilities of drone technology but for society at large to see the full benefit, we need to get to a position where drones are an integral, normal part of the process, whatever that may be.
Anyone directly involved in the commercial use of drones will recognise the effort it has taken to get them accepted as an integral part of business processes of all types. But increasingly, and particularly in nationwide safety projects such as the Government’s cladding remediation programme, their use starts to look like an urgent no-brainer.
One of the industry’s most enthusiastic early adopters of drone technology, Zurich Insurance saw that drones can get places humans can’t and get there quicker too.
So, when Zurich’s UK Chief Claims Officer, David Nichols had a personal roof damage claim, he was keen to see if drones delivered what he thought they did.
And here he gives us some insight from a unique perspective – a claims director experiencing the claims service firsthand.
As a claims director, you want to be pretty confident that your teams are delivering a top notch service and that the customer experience is always excellent but there is no greater test of your service than being ‘fortunate’ enough to experience claims services yourself. I have to say that everything was what I hoped it would be!
Anyway, the claim went smoothly but the bit I was particularly interested in experiencing was some new technology we have introduced to our claims service – drones.
We started using them because we thought it sounded like a great idea. Of course, the decision-making was more detailed than that but in essence, we have been looking for everything and anything that can speed up and smooth out the claims process for customers and drones seemed to be a simple, cost-effective way of doing that.
The obvious, immediate use is in claims where we can’t access the site such as in major floods or fires. Drones provide immediate access, but they also provide detailed imagery, measurements and a host of other data, putting our claims teams on the front foot.
It speeds up our processes and brings the customer closer to a clear decision, either way, in hours rather than weeks.
But there is an added benefit to using drones – customer engagement. The ability to share images of the damage with a customer and being able to explain next steps immediately provides reassurance and we are able to bring the customer into the claims conversation in a way we haven’t been able to before. Images provide the immediate truth of a situation.
More than that, this approach can also bring the customer’s knowledge of their business or property into play to help us allocate resources in the most effective way. For example, we had a factory fire earlier this year. By using the images captured by the drone, the client was able to indicate to us the location of their machinery, what parts of the operation were critical and what parts could wait. This allowed us to shape our response in a more informed and targeted way.
All of this makes using drones in claims a bit of a no-brainer for me. The clincher was when I experienced it for myself through a personal claim. My roof was damaged in the storms this year and obviously the extent of the damage had to be understood before the claim could go any further.
A drone was deployed within days of registering the claim. Within an hour of the drone being on site, I was shown imagery of the damage by the drone operator who then explained the next steps to me.
I did not have to wait for scaffolding to be set up or a cherry picker to be deployed. I was also brought into the conversation surrounding my claim at the earliest stage. It was fast, completely unobtrusive and I felt included in the process. Exactly the kind of experience I hoped drones would bring to our customers.
This is only scratching the surface though. Drones capture a huge amount of detailed data and I see no reason why this can’t be deployed more widely such as with the building estimation tools that we all use. Any process that can be automated to create a better customer experience has to be embraced.
And why stop at claims? There are obvious applications in a broad range of services, and we will continue to explore these. Imagine a process where we have the detailed drone data at policy inception stage and detailed drone data at the claim stage? Those data sets can ‘speak’ to each other, giving greater clarity, faster decision making and greater levels of transparency for all parties.
We can do that. The tools are there. As individual firms and as an industry, we just need to have the foresight and the confidence to use them to their full extent. What started as a “why not?” at Zurich is now a “where next?”.
“There’s a way to do it better – find it.” This quotation is widely attributed to the inventor and businessman Thomas Edison, but for businesses throughout the insurance sector, this has become an underlying mantra as they rapidly adopt new working practices and digital technologies during the COVID-19 lockdown. The long-term nature of such changes and the impact they may have on traditional means of doing business is still unknown but the speed with which the sector has responded has been widely praised.
When it comes to the new technologies being employed by insurers and brokers, most have been pre-existing services which were available but not utilised prior to the lockdown. From Zoom to Teams to the use of drone technologies, COVID-19 has encouraged the insurance sector, which has often contended with the label of being slow to innovate, to embrace new solutions.
Rebecca Jones (pictured above), owner and co-founder of the drone services provider, Iprosurv, noted that while, from a financial services perspective, insurance has lingered behind in terms of digitisation there is clearly new momentum. Insurance businesses are starting to embed tech processes into their business models, and this has evidently been accelerated by the lockdown.
“We’re seeing parts of the supply chain suddenly being forced to use tech services,” she said. “And previously they tended to be wary or apprehensive about these services or just to dabble with them as opposed to making them a fundamentally integrated process.
“It used to be a case of ‘we’ll try every other way we can do it first, and then we’ll adopt a tech perspective.’ [The lockdown] has been of benefit because the preconceptions about drones and tech in general have often been indifferent at best, and negative at worst, but now our clients have been in a position of being able to see what [these services] can really do.”
Jones outlined how Iprosurv, which is approved by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), is something of a pioneer in the drone services sector in terms of its insurance applications. Since its start-up in 2014, the business has seen dramatically increased demand for its drone inspection services and a definite uptick in the market in terms of adopting this technology. Iprosurv’s national network of individual commercial operators deploy drones on demand throughout the UK and offer a variety of services from damage assessment to risk management analysis.
The drone is the ‘tool in the box’, she said, capable of quickly capturing data and digital imagery which can be analysed to form a report. The range of applications of these technologies is vast and, for clients during the lockdown, this is an opportunity to explore alternative solutions so they have the data necessary to progress their claims or create risk management surveys on certain structures.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, Iprosurv worked with the CAA as it identified that it would need to make site safety assurances and implement changes to the ways in which it communicated with its clients. There is some apprehension from a policyholder’s perspective regarding people entering their property during COVID-19 as they may be self-isolating, and so the hands-off approach has been useful.
By ensuring that all contact regarding an inspection is carried out prior to the site-visit, she said, the business is able to ensure that drone pilots operate in sheer isolation, and that there is no interaction from a policyholder’s perspective and minimal contact with the associated site.
“One of the biggest challenges that we have is getting people to dip their toe into new services,” she said. “There has been a little bit of apprehension in terms of what drones can do and what data will be received and whether or not it will be good enough. But what we find is that once clients have used the technology, they like it and their feedback is amazing and they are asking themselves why they didn’t use it sooner.
“It’s difficult to find positives out of this pandemic but as a digital and tech-enabled provider, this crisis has forced the industry to embrace and experience new technologies and the way they can help the customer experience and how, from the customer’s perspective, these solutions can help facilitate faster and more enhanced decision making. That is a real positive and I would like to see that the industry as a whole really embrace tech moving forward.”
The insurance industry had no choice but to keep operating during the lockdown – the financial regulator made it clear that it expected claims to be processed and settled as normal. How exactly the industry should do that, was less clear. Unsurprisingly, for many, tech was the answer and here, Lisa Bartlett, the UK and Ireland President of loss adjusting firm, Crawford & Co, gives us some insight into what that looked like and what role drones had to play in keeping the claims machine moving.
It is a well-established idea that the more we embrace technology, the more we fear it will make us humans redundant. But what has been a gentle jog towards digital over the past few years, suddenly turned into a sprint during the lockdown.
Those that could, turned digital virtually overnight, having been forced to find new ways to operate and maintain customer service. It has shown many of us just how powerful technology can be and has made us completely rethink how we will work when life returns to ‘normal’.
Does this mean the machines have won?
Not necessarily. There is no doubting that the greater use of tech in insurance and adjusting is here to stay. That’s a given. It’s nothing new anyway – we have been introducing more and more digital processes into our businesses for years but perhaps what the lockdown has forced us to do is to really explore its full capabilities.
Crawford has been able to conduct desktop claims handling for some time now but when the lockdown was introduced, we went remote and digital quickly, across the organisation and it worked. But it also evolved.
For some time now, we have been using an app that allows customers to upload photos of damage to our adjusters to help speed up the claims process. During the lockdown, with no site visits possible, we had to find a new way, so we shifted to video conferencing and while not the same as having a human on site, provided the necessary insight for our adjusters to get a claim moving.
To supplement that, we have been using drones to conduct site visits and again, while this is not new technology for us, the use of it has increased and been applied beyond the traditional uses of flood and major fire events.
The immediate operational use of tech is obvious, but it goes beyond the practical and this is what, despite any reservations, we need to keep exploring. Because it doesn’t just make life easier – if used properly and blended with our technical expertise, it will make us better at what we do.
Take the cameras that drones use, for example. These high definition cameras take a series of NADIR (straight down), oblique and horizontal images, which can then be processed through advanced software to create a 3D interactive ‘digital twin’ model of the site. This permanent record can then be shared with all parties, reducing or even removing the need for repeat visits, with the obvious time savings that provides.
But perhaps more importantly, the data and imaging can be used with clients too, showing them what was found, the damage done, what the likely causes of that damage were and what the remedy might be. It just makes the whole claims process much more transparent for the customer and, indeed, for everyone involved.
And this can only be a good thing. Whatever reservations people may have about technology, I just can’t see Crawford, or anyone else, rowing back and not embracing the advantages it provides. Where there is a clear operational and customer service benefit, it is incumbent upon all of us to use it.
That doesn’t mean that technology is the be all and end all, however. Its full potential can only really be realised when it is properly paired with the technical expertise of adjusters. Indeed, as smart as the tech may be, it still needs the insight and oversight that only an adjuster can provide – drones are flown by a human, the 3D images are interpreted by a human and the adjuster is still making the final call on a claim.
And I think that is biggest operational lesson we can learn from all of this – yes, we are all more digital now but no, that does not need to be to the detriment of humans. It is with an open mind and a determination to explore all the possibilities (while reminding ourselves of our own value), that we will make the real digital leap forward that so many have been predicting for so long.
If you had asked a farmer five years ago how they use drones to manage their land, they would have given you some very puzzled looks.
Today, however, most agriculturalists are thinking about using them.
After all, drones offer the promise of precision agriculture, in which micro-level data is gathered to enhance decision-making. Which farmer wouldn’t want to know exactly what their crops need at any given moment: the amount of water, quantity and formula of fertilizer, or type of pesticide?
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are quickly becoming indispensable tools for farmers who want to be more efficient in the field and make better-informed decisions. As a result, agriculture is now one of the fastest-growing markets in the commercial drone industry.
Over the past few years, a burgeoning ecosystem of ag-specific drone solutions has emerged to put aerial data to work in new and exciting ways – from detecting crop damage to analysing stand counts.
Speed is often of the essence in farming, with diseases and invasive species capable of spreading quickly. A small problem could turn into something much more serious in the days – sometimes weeks – it takes to schedule and process imagery from a manned aircraft or satellite.
The rapid deployment capability of drones, however – plus their range and speed – mean farmers can get a high-resolution map of their land in a matter of minutes.
What we can do for you
Iprosurv has a network of specialist drone pilots around the UK and can provide you with agricultural reports to help maintain your land. Our drones can collect information such as:
Overall crop and plant health
Land distribution based on crop type
Detailed GPS maps of crop areas
Put simply, we can help you maximise your land and resource use and determine the best planting locations.
From crop monitoring and planting to livestock management, crop spraying, irrigation mapping, and much more, our high-tech drones can help you improve yields, save time, and make decisions that will contribute to the long-term success of your farm or agriculture business.