30/03/2021

Drone Mapping After the Storm: USAA Delivers Localized Disaster Intelligence and Claims Support with eBee X

The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season was one of the most devastating and costly on record. When Hurricane Delta made its arrival on the southern shores of the U.S., it broke the 104-year-old record for the most named storms in a season. It brought with it wind speeds of 145 mph (230 km/h) and heavy storm surge while leaving behind an estimated $4.19 billion in property damage.

Recovery from Delta came on the heels of rebuilding efforts following Hurricane Laura one week prior. Damage concentrated on roofs and exterior building cladding is costly to homeowners who may not even be aware as to the extent of the damage.

The United Services Automobile Association (USAA) joins a growing number of insurance providers who are turning to established drone mapping platforms such as the eBee X fixed-wing drone to provide fast damage assessments for affected members while also providing real-time situational awareness to local emergency responders.

 

Community-First Support

The USAA Drone Team is small by intent but powerful in what they deliver through accessibility, awareness and service to communities across Florida and Texas.

“We’re just a group of four guys out there with drones trying to help the community through imagery,” says Daniel Diaz, strategic innovation director and field adjuster, USAA. “Is that church on 5th Street still standing, because relief teams want it turned into a shelter? The simplest of questions make a big difference when met with data that’s quickly available.”

USAA Drone Team onsite during a routine flight; (L-R) Daniel Diaz, Manfred Amann, Doug Castle, Eric Schroeder.

 

A key component of the team is their partnership with Justin Adams, a researcher with the Center for Disaster Risk Policy (CDRP) at Florida State University. Adams looks at disaster intelligence to determine efficient ways to provide state partners with the data they need.

Adams is also the president and managing director of the Center for Robotics Assisted Search And Rescue (CRASAR), a non-profit partnership between Texas A&M and Florida State University. In 2005 CRASAR was the first team to use drones for damage assessment following Hurricane Katrina. But its partnership with USAA goes back to 2014. Since then, it responded to many notable events such as Hurricanes Irma, Harvey and Maria.

“Part of our partnership with USAA is to be able to get that dataset out to the state partners because one of the challenges at the municipal and state level is they don’t have funds to hire out the mapping from an emergency management perspective,” says Adams. “What we try to do is look for localized events and deploy a team out.”

CDRP faculty and staff lead the UAS operations for state emergency response teams. As the State Emergency Operations Center is activated following an event, Adams is front and center helping coordinate access for teams conducting assessments over hard-hit areas.

On location, the USAA Drone Team operates as a neutral entity with the primary objective of collecting aerial intelligence for the local community and whether they have members in the area or not.

“I don’t care if there’s zero USAA membership or 400,” adds Diaz. “To me, [our job] is to help that community.”

 

Proven & Scalable

Drones have long made an ideal alternative to traditional manned flights because of their quick data collection and affordability. The lower flight altitude also helps capture sharper detail for more accurate damage assessments.

“From the ability to take very high-resolution images and map out a neighborhood, drones are just the best tool for that purpose if you want to look at hail,” says Manfred Amann, research engineer, USAA. “With manned flights, you just don’t get the resolution to be able to make a good determination of hail.”

USAA previously explored multirotor and other systems, but as the team looked to scale their operations, they needed an established platform capable of handling missions over large areas and advanced operations.

This led the team to select the eBee X fixed-wing drone with an Aeria X photogrammetry camera and active Real-time Kinematic (RTK) functionality to capture highly accurate GPS-referenced imagery. Adding two to their fleet, several features and operational requirements helped the eBee stand out from the crowd.

“Number one is the ease of use; the ground control station, eMotion software is the best I’ve seen of any platform, of any solution out there, it’s rock-solid,” says Adams. “We don’t have the challenges we have with the VTOLS where we’re restricted to a limited airspeed for taking off.”

Most VTOLS are limited to 10-12 mph, and they have to transition in less than 60 seconds. This is a very limiting factor, especially on coastal events because there is always 10-15 knots of onshore wind.

Fixed-wing drones also deliver a much quicker collection over large areas. By comparison, during an event in Mexico Beach, FL the team flew a multirotor drone in 15 different missions over two days to cover roughly three square miles. The team estimated that with a fixed-wing drone, they could launch one to the East and one to the West, capturing the same data in less than two hours.

“A platform like senseFly can bring a lot to insurance adjusters and emergency responders from a BVLOS perspective, extended visual lines of sight and flights over people. Knowing that the senseFly platform has blazed away in a relationship with the FAA was really, truly one of the main factors why we turned to the platform.”

– Daniel Diaz, strategic innovation director and previous field adjuster, USAA

Reducing Risk, Increasing Safety

The USAA team initially turned to drones to help increase their operational efficiency following a disaster, while keeping their agents out of danger. Fixed-wing drones capable of surveying large areas containing multiple properties work more efficiently than multirotor drones. As a result, they require fewer boots on the ground.

“Our big thing is reducing risk by putting fewer people in the area of operation,” said Adams “if we can reduce that footprint to four people instead of 15, it helps a lot, especially if we have to evacuate.”

The eBee X fixed-wing mapping drone enables the USAA Drone Team to efficiently cover more ground with less resources.

 

Eventually, advanced drone operations will enable the USAA team to manage catastrophe scenarios and hail damage over larger areas.

“A platform like senseFly can bring a lot to insurance adjusters and emergency responders from a BVLOS perspective, extended visual lines of sight and flights over people,” adds Diaz. “Knowing that the senseFly platform has blazed away in a relationship with the FAA was really, truly one of the main factors we turned to the platform.”

 

Drone Data to the Rescue

USAA uses imagery in two different ways, as a quick-stitch orthomosaic which is shared externally with disaster relief partners in the community, and internally for its membership. Pre- and post-launch imagery is matched up in an in-house AWS environment to enable their claims adjusters to intimately know the state of the member’s home once they call in.

It’s important to note that most of the time members are evacuated from catastrophe areas and unable to provide imagery due to energy loss, home accessibility, etc. Thanks to the Drone Team and the eBee X, USAA has the imagery for adjusters.

“It is an extremely powerful thing to marry members details along with the visual ground truth details of an image,” says Diaz. “That makes the life of a claim for our members less of a headache than it already is.”

 

Quicker Resource Coordination

During Tropical Storm Beta, USAA partnered with the Pearland Police Department and the Texas Gulf Coast Regional Public Safety UAS Response Team. The storm was coming but no one knew what it was going to do.

Adams worked with the City of Pearland to identify where potential hotspots would be in the event of substantial rain. Through the night, the storm dropped 16-inches of rain on the city.

Eric Schroeder provides a demonstration of the eBee X for officers of the Pearland Police Department.

 

The following morning, the USAA team flew the eBee X, mapping residential property as well as conducting some corridor mapping of the flood extent in the creeks and other waterways. As soon as the images were downloaded from the drone the team processed the data in the field with Pix4Dreact and pushed it up to esri’s ArcGIS Online for sharing with local GIS professionals and disaster response teams.

Upon landing, aerial imagery is processed in Pix4Dreact to provide immediate situational awareness to Pearland PD and other first responders, aiding relief efforts.

 

Aerial imagery of Clear Creek, Pearland TX taken after Hurricane Beta showed disaster response teams areas of overflow and flooded roadways.

 

This data was used in realtime to make decisions on evacuations, what roads were closed and what roads were open. USAA doesn’t have a flood policy; however, the teams’ support didn’t go unrecognized.

“USAA is here to help their members, but they are also here to help the community,” says Adams. “The quicker we can get the data to the stakeholders, the quicker they can make actionable decisions which in turn reduces the potential impact on the community and helps the community come back quicker and be more resilient in the future.”

For more information about the eBee X, click here.