Taking to the skies: American Family among several insurance companies using drones

We’ve seen it with law enforcement and the media, but now more and more companies in the private sector are finding uses for unmanned aerial systems, or drones.

For the past several years, insurance companies, including Madison-based American Family Insurance, have looked into ways to use drones to increase productivity and efficiency in the claims process.

In areas that have been hit by devastating weather, claims adjusters are often presented with dangerous situations, such as downed power lines or trees. Even after widespread hailstorms, such as the one that hit northern Dane County in May, drones are able to give claims adjusters a closer look at numerous rooftops to assess the damage.

That was the case for Patrick Killian after a hailstorm hit his home earlier this year. The volunteer firefighter from DeForest knows about the dangers of severe weather and walking on rooftops. When American Family showed up to assess his roof, he was happy to see that his adjuster was firing up a drone.

“I wasn’t sure that they were able to see the little spots that hail would mark; 602 and he was able to zoom in and show me what he was looking at. It was pretty impressive,” said Killian. “He didn’t have to get up on a ladder and go up there and take an hour looking around. Even the possibility of falling off the roof was a concern for me so he had none of that.”

Don Johnson is the personal lines property claims associate vice president for American Family, and he says the company’s use of drones continues to evolve.

“Drones particularly have helped us in terms of damage assessments — being able to assess two-story roofs, areas that are harder for us to access,” said Johnson. “We’ve actually had adjusters who have been injured climbing roofs, slippery surfaces, steep slopes, those types of things, drones put us in a great position to keep them safe.”

Then there’s Taylor Horsager. The Luck, Wisconsin, native grew up flying with his grandfather in northern Wisconsin, before his college studies took him to UW-Madison. After majoring in philosophy and strategic communications, Horsager found a job that satisfied his passion for aviation. He helped get the drone program up and running at American Family, and now trains its claims adjusters on how to operate the drones. He also designed the system used. As a kid who grew up dreaming about airplanes, Hosager never thought he’d work for an insurance company, yet here he is.

“Ever since I was a young kid, my grandpa was taking me flying,” said Horsager. “The opportunity came up to start flying drones for American Family and I couldn’t say no to that.”

Through an iPad connected to a controller, the drones that Horsager helped design can hover high above a home and zero in on potential trouble spots, such as hail damage.

“We can generally get within a meter, and with a 20 megapixel camera, generally we can see granules that have been lost if a hail strike has occurred,” said Horsager.

A study by software development company Cognizant indicates that drones will make claims adjusters’ workflow 40 to 50 percent more efficient. Insurers such as American Family hope drones not only makes their claims adjusters’ jobs safer, but also more cost-effective.

Johnson says it’s something that both his teams of claims adjusters and clients will notice.

“We have up to 10 drone pilots who are going to be in position to respond very quickly, and deploy quickly to the areas that are affected. Then we use the drones to assess the damage and serve our customers,” he said.

The speed of service wasn’t lost on Patrick Killian. “You know, it was a half-hour that he was physically on location so he was probably able to cover more houses that day using a drone than manually climbing up on a roof all the time. I thought it was pretty impressive technology,” he said.