Drones Show Up for Work in the Aftermath of the Santa Rosa Wildfires
Insurance estimators turn to drones to fast-track property inspections and help communities rebuild in the wake of Northern California wildfires
When wildfires spread across Sonoma County last year, the destruction left entire communities in turmoil. Fires destroyed more the 6,600 properties and left thousands of families without homes in the wake of the disaster.
After the smoke cleared, insurers quickly got to work helping residents of Santa Rosa get back on their feet. But with thousands of properties to inspect — and dangerous, smoldering rubble in every direction — the job wasn’t easy.
That’s why companies turned to drones to fast-track the process and help residents rebuild. Drone maps and 3D models made it easier for insurance estimators to assess the damage caused by the fires and process claims faster.
We recently spoke with Thomas Koester, President, and Principal Estimator at Accurate Estimates Inc., to learn more about how his team used drones to improve the estimation process after the recent wildfires.
Drones Streamline Inspections and Improve Forensic Estimation
Accurate Estimates specializes in forensic estimation. Thomas and his team have the difficult job of capturing detailed information about a property before it’s destroyed. Then they use that data to create a precise reconstruction cost estimate for insurance providers.
As you can imagine, this can be quite challenging — especially in the case of a wildfire. “Most of these families don’t have plans,” says Thomas. “And if they did have photographs or records, the documents are often burned up in the wildfire.” This makes it very challenging for estimators to assess the property and provide insurers with estimated building costs.
So Thomas has to start from the bottom. He assesses the foundation’s footprint, inspects any remaining structures, and measures property features such as fences, decks, and sidewalks.
In the past, he’d have to sift through the rubble and take manual measurements with a tape measure or laser measurement system, which was risky and time-consuming. But drones have changed things. Using DroneDeploy, he can fly a property, create a map and 3D model, and get insights without ever stepping foot on the lot. As for the accuracy of these measurements? Thomas says, “the measurements are accurate down to the inch.”
“With DroneDeploy, not only we can measure the foundation, but we can then create a 3D model, explore the topography of a lot, and measure property features like fencelines and pools — all from the safety of our office.”
Aerial Data Collection Makes Property Inspections Safer and More Efficient
Accurate Estimates is no stranger to disaster. With more than 30 years experience estimating damage for insurance companies, the team has seen it all. Fires, floods, earthquakes, you name it. But this is the first year the company is using drones as part of the estimation process.
“Drones are a breakthrough technology for our team,” said Thomas. “We can now get in, get out, and move on to the next site in record time.” Using DroneDeploy and a DJI Phantom 4 Pro, Thomas and his team collect imagery and property data six times faster than the traditional methods they have relied on in the past. Drone data has completely redefined his workflow, helping his team map and measure 5–6 properties per day, as compared to 1–2 properties before implementing drones.
“DroneDeploy has increased our bottom line by more than 20%,” says Thomas. “We’re seeing a substantial increase in client bookings as a result of the efficiency of 3D aerial mapping.”
But it’s not just speed that has turned Thomas into a drone evangelist. As a lifelong estimator in dangerous industries like insurance and construction, he’s seen his fair share of accidents—including falling from a roof and injuring himself. So safety is always top of mind when he’s on site.
“Not only is DroneDeploy a practical solution, but it’s also a safety tool for us as well.” — Thomas Koester, President at Accurate Estimates Inc.
With drones, he and his team no longer have to climb roofs, comb through rubble, or expose themselves to dangerous materials when inspecting a site. They just drive to the property, fire up DroneDeploy, and let the drone do its job.
Then he packs things up and heads to the next site. He completes the analysis back at the office—from the safety of a desk chair.
The Future of Drones in Property Inspection and Estimation
Today, drones are being used post-disaster to help estimators, but Thomas is looking to change that. He sees drones playing an even larger role in the claims process down the road.
Thomas plans to be proactive and work with residents in high-risk areas to document properties with aerial photos, drone maps, and exterior and interior 3D models. He believes this will solve a lot of his customer’s issues and help them negotiate claims more effectively should disaster strike.
“If some unfortunate event happens, they will be miles ahead and able to prove claims with the insurer thanks to precise, as-built plans so they can put their life back together again,” Says Thomas
For now, he’s thrilled about the way drones have changed his work and is happy to play a small role in helping victims of disaster rebuild their lives.