When it comes to roof inspections, ‘Drones are the Future’. Now what?

Buying a drone is easy. But using a drone for roof inspections, not so much. Figuring out how to conduct roof inspections by using a drone legally, skillfully, safely, and profitably, while simultaneously getting better and faster data, all while protecting people’s privacy, is difficult. Or maybe not.

But it can be done. Let’s break it down to bite-sized pieces.

First, Transport Canada (TC) is at the top of the food chain in drone regulation. Operating a commercial drone legally in Canada means following TC aviation rules that, at times, seem unfathomable. Despite what you may hear, there are no “exemptions” from the TC rules for commercial drone operations. If you plan to fly 4 inches or 400 feet off the ground anywhere there are buildings, you have to satisfy TC before they will issue a ‘Special Flight Operations Certificate’ (SFOC). It’s their airspace.

Of course, no restoration contractor can wait the 20 or more business days it takes for TC to process one application to fly for one location. That would quickly kill your KPIs! But if you get with the program you, too, can fly safely and legally anywhere in Canada on short notice. Very short notice.

What some see as overly tough TC regulation really does makes sense when you think about it, because for a couple of thousand dollars anyone can buy a drone capable of reaching 19,000 feet and potentially bumping into manned aircraft, causing a real danger to life and limb. But contractors don’t need to fly high or fast. Rather, we have a well-defined need for short-notice, close-in, structure-specific, and accurate inspections that produce the data necessary for the next step in settling claims. Simply put, roof inspection altitudes are low, flights operations are automated (see next section) and flight duration is as short as 10 minutes per inspection. Yes, you need training and liability insurance, but all of these requirements can be met if you know where to look. And specialized insurance inspector pilot training and software can help you tie a bow around all of it. It really is easy.

 Secondly, you have to choose hardware that Transport Canada will allow you to fly.Autonomous” drones do not qualify for SFOCs in our industry. “Automated” drones are OK. What’s the difference?

Autonomous means a drone that, once launched, can’t be overridden by a human pilot. Automated means that, you guessed it: the drone flight software can be interrupted by a human pilot during the operation and manoeuvred out of harm’s way. Safety first.

The risks of autonomous drones are significant: the technology may look amazing and it works properly most of the time, but not 100% of the time, and therefore, danger lurks. In Canada, for example, trees drop their leaves in the winter, making them harder for sensors to spot. Winds can suddenly change or rain can start. Hardware control systems can fail, requiring control system redundancy to mitigate the risk. Not every circumstance can be accounted for. The need for skilled eyeballs and a joystick capable of stepping in is essential, and Transport Canada insists on this. Just like manned aircraft auto-pilot which is an outstanding tool, but no one wants to fly in a plane that a pilot can’t take over. Automatic return-to-home feature is not enough – you need to be able to manoeuvre the drone manually in flight, if need be. Always stay in control.

Third is the need to choose insurance drone automation software to produce affordable, accurate and fast reports. The good news is that clever insurance software developers have focused on the specific needs of roofing inspectors. Using off-the-shelf hardware available at a big-box electronics store, driven by powerful and inexpensive software, drone inspections will usually cost less than manned inspections and produce vastly superior results in a fraction of the time. Whether responding to CATS or one-offs, productivity and reports can improve exponentially by a trained inspector using the right software. Let the software do the work.

You may ask what’s special about insurance drone software? Unlike cinematographers, realtors or open-pit mines, insurance users need inspection results that can be presented quickly and in detail for use by estimating software, carriers, policyholders and restoration contractors, making every piece of the bidding, claims, or underwriting process simpler. We need ultra HD still photos, automatic damage detection (wow!), 3D wireframes, measurements, roof pitches, property gradients and other key data. We need automatic PDF insurance reports that anyone can understand. That calls for special software designed by insurance specialists, for insurance specialists. The right software.

What about protecting people’s privacy? This can be achieved by specialized software and training. First, good insurance drone software allows users to pre-program a tight flight path that helps the drone stay above the property being inspected. Second, software developers will soon roll out image blurring technologies similar to Google Street View that masks people. When combined with training on notification procedures and templates, privacy can be well protected. Privacy is a right.

Think of your drone like a smartphone that flies, but with almost no apps, like the first smartphones were years ago. Drone automation software has to be designed for specific tasks to be any good, just like a smartphone app. What use is sizzle without steak?

With a few smart decisions now, you can make drone insurance inspection part of your present and not just some distant future. Fly safe; fly smart.


About the Author:

Sam Margel is co-founder and VP Technology & Operations, Drone Software Canada Inc. Sam is a qualified commercial UAV pilot and holds a Standing SFOC from Transport Canada on behalf of DSC. Sam previously has held leadership, business development and consulting positions with leading consulting and technology firms. Contact Sam at sam.margel@dronesoftwarecanada.com or call 647-642-7642.