An Unprecedented Number of Drones Will Deploy Over Houston to Survey What Humans Can’t See

Insurance adjusters won’t need to be there to assess the damage.

William Luther/San Antonio Express-News via ZUMA Wire

This story was originally published by Slate and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Right now, the Federal Aviation Administration has imposed a ban on drones flying over Houston, which is still weathering what some climatologists are calling the worst storm in U.S. history. But once the rains and the winds die down, that ban will be lifted, and hundreds of flying robots will ascend above the city and region to assess Hurricane Harvey’s damage.

More than 2 million people live in Houston, and as many as 13 million live in the wider region affected by the storm. That means millions will probably get paid out by insurance companies. But this year, instead of relying on insurance adjusters with hardhats and clipboards to climb onto claimants’ roofs and decide what they are owed, insurance companies in many cases will use drones to inspect the aftermath.

“This will be the widest scale event that we’ve used drones for to date,” said Justin Herndon, a spokesman for Allstate. Herndon says his company expects to conduct hundreds of drone flights per day after Harvey—thousands a week. Farmer’s, another major property insurance company, is also planning to deploy drones for the same purpose. The drones that most insurance companies will use aren’t huge; they fit in a medium-sized suitcase and are packed with high-resolution cameras that can take aerial images of roofs and property. It’s not always safe for a person to walk on the roof of a severely damaged building, and some areas are often impossible to assess until other parts are repaired or special rigging is used. Having a robot take those photos instead is safer, faster, and cheaper.

(Telecom companies also say they have drones on hand to inspect infrastructure after Harvey. Last year, in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, when the roads were too submerged for cars to drive, Verizon flew drones to check cellular site locations for connectivity and damage, which was more efficient than driving a boat with technicians to check each site individually.)

Drones mean that the insurance-claim professionals who will be assessing the damage won’t actually have to be there for the inspection. Allstate, for example, gets permission from the homeowner to ask if they’re OK with a drone conducting the inspection, after which it sends out technicians from a drone company with which it contracts to conduct the flights and take the high-definition images. Those images are sent directly to a claims specialist. And while that probably hugely expedites an otherwise-lengthy the process, it also means that the people who will depend on their insurance payout won’t necessarily meet face to face with the people adding it up.

Hurricane Harvey could leave Texas with as much as $30 billion in damages, according estimates from Enki Holdings, an analytics firm that spoke to the New York Times, though only 40 percent of that may be covered by insurance. Victims of Harvey who do have some form of a private safety net will probably want to get whatever they can to start rebuilding their lives. And for the first time, many are going to be asked if they’d like to have a robot come out and assess their losses—a potentially less precise and certainly less personal process, but at least a shorter one.

More Mother Jones reporting on Climate Desk

WE'LL BE BLUNT:

We need to start raising significantly more in donations from our online community of readers, especially from those who read Mother Jones regularly but have never decided to pitch in because you figured others always will. We also need long-time and new donors, everyone, to keep showing up for us.

In "It's Not a Crisis. This Is the New Normal," we explain, as matter-of-factly as we can, what exactly our finances look like, how brutal it is to sustain quality journalism right now, what makes Mother Jones different than most of the news out there, and why support from readers is the only thing that keeps us going. Despite the challenges, we're optimistic we can increase the share of online readers who decide to donate—starting with hitting an ambitious $300,000 goal in just three weeks to make sure we can finish our fiscal year break-even in the coming months.

Please learn more about how Mother Jones works and our 47-year history of doing nonprofit journalism that you don't find elsewhere—and help us do it with a donation if you can. We've already cut expenses and hitting our online goal is critical right now.

payment methods

WE'LL BE BLUNT

We need to start raising significantly more in donations from our online community of readers, especially from those who read Mother Jones regularly but have never decided to pitch in because you figured others always will. We also need long-time and new donors, everyone, to keep showing up for us.

In "It's Not a Crisis. This Is the New Normal," we explain, as matter-of-factly as we can, what exactly our finances look like, how brutal it is to sustain quality journalism right now, what makes Mother Jones different than most of the news out there, and why support from readers is the only thing that keeps us going. Despite the challenges, we're optimistic we can increase the share of online readers who decide to donate—starting with hitting an ambitious $300,000 goal in just three weeks to make sure we can finish our fiscal year break-even in the coming months.

Please learn more about how Mother Jones works and our 47-year history of doing nonprofit journalism that you don't find elsewhere—and help us do it with a donation if you can. We've already cut expenses and hitting our online goal is critical right now.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate