Evolving Risk

Rogue Drones

Drones are creating public safety hazards, and there’s little that can be done.  
By: | August 31, 2015 • 10 min read

This summer, at one of California’s numerous wildfires, the appearance of a drone over Interstate 15 forced firefighting aircraft to back off for about 20 minutes until it flew away.

Instead of 40 or 50 acres burning before that fire was controlled, a few thousand acres, along with about 20 vehicles, were destroyed, as drivers ran from the area, according to reports.

In July alone, there were about a half-dozen similar incidents in California. Anywhere from two to five drones appeared at fire sites, sometimes chasing after the air tankers and helicopters, and forcing the aircraft to delay dropping retardant or even calling off operations until the areas could be cleared.

Dennis Brown, chief of flight operations, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire)

Dennis Brown, chief of flight operations, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire)

“It has hampered our efforts,” said Dennis Brown, chief of flight operations at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), which has about 50 air tankers and helicopters that respond nearly daily to wildfires from March through November.

“The size of the drones, even though they look small, could cause significant damage to any of our aircraft,” Brown said. The tail rotor of a helicopter is particularly vulnerable and a tail rotor strike could be catastrophic. “We had one helicopter pilot coming in to land to drop off a crew and there was a near miss by a drone,” he said. “It was 20 to 30 feet away, right in the windscreen.”

Sometimes, the drones are operated by homeowners checking for damage to their property. Sometimes it’s just curiosity or a desire to photograph the scene and post it to social media that prompts the drone operators.

“The size of the drones, even though they look small, could cause significant damage to any of our aircraft.” — Dennis Brown, chief of flight operations, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire)

But regardless of the reason, interference from drone operators is obstructing firefighting efforts and increasing danger to the pilots and their aircraft.

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“The pilots are flying low and they are flying fast,” said John Glenn, chief of fire operations for the Bureau of Land Management. “There are a lot of hazards there. You throw drones or UAVs into the mix and there have been a number of cases where we have shut down operations until we can clear the air.”

Open Season for Drones

Public safety hazards due to drones aren’t limited to firefighting. The Federal Aviation Administration reports about two dozen drone sightings per month at airports throughout the nation, according to reports.

In one reported case, a plane headed from Washington, D.C. to LaGuardia Airport in New York had to pull up about 200 feet to avoid a collision with a drone in its path as it tried to land.

UAVs have buzzed French nuclear plants, landed on the roof of the Japanese prime minister’s residence (with radioactive material, no less), and even landed on the White House lawn. In August, a riot broke out in an Ohio prison yard after a drone dropped a package containing significant quantities of marijuana and heroin.

Drones have flown over sporting events and city parks — to sometimes deadly effect. One 19-year-old man died in a New York park when he lost control of his drone helicopter and the fast-moving blades cut him and killed him.

J. Matthew Ouellette, owner/general adjuster, Ouellette & Associates

J. Matthew Ouellette, owner/general adjuster, Ouellette & Associates

Drones have been sighted during a game of the Texas Longhorns football team and at a Philadelphia Phillies game. A triathlete in Western Australia had to be taken to the hospital just yards from the finish line after a drone fell on her.

“They take a pretty decent picture and they are fun and cute, but it’s not real smart to be flying a drone in an arena,” said J. Matthew Ouellette, owner/general adjuster at Ouellette & Associates in Indiana.

“The drone could fall out of the sky … and into somebody’s lap or into their beer,” he said. “Right now, it’s open season and people are flying them all over the place. There are just some idiots out there.”

And some people don’t take kindly to it, with reports surfacing of people shooting drones out of the sky. Of course, the reverse is also a grim prospect: One teenager was arrested after creating a drone that shoots a gun.

Coverage Options

As for insurance coverage, the typical general liability, property or homeowners’ policy does not cover aircraft, experts said.

Insurance policies covering drone use are generally purchased by either the owner/operator of the drone or the manufacturer, said Patton Kline, senior vice president, Marsh Aviation. “Obviously, the risks for those two groups are very different.”

And, in the end, he said, it is the manufacturers that may face the greatest liability.

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“If there is a significant event, we are concerned that litigation will come back to the UAS [unmanned aerial system] manufacturer because they will have the deep pockets,” he said.

“If you have a weekend warrior flying a drone for fun, they don’t necessarily understand the risks and if they are involved in a significant loss, they may not have insurance to pay for damages.”

“Right now, it’s open season and people are flying them all over the place. There are just some idiots out there.” — J. Matthew Ouellette, owner/general adjuster, Ouellette & Associates

For large aerospace companies that use or manufacture drones, it’s fairly easy for them to work with their insurers to add drone coverage to current policies or to add a stand-alone policy, Kline said.

Coverage may include physical damage to the UAS, propulsion units, payload/cargo (imaging, sensors or specialty equipment that may be more expensive than the UAS itself), ground station control units, spare parts and transit coverage.

All of that is available, he said, from up to a dozen insurers including AIG, Global Aerospace, Allianz, Starr Aviation, United States Aviation Underwriters and Berkley Aviation, as well as insurers that do not historically provide aviation coverage.

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The U.S. Forest Service began publicizing the need to keep drones away from wildfires this summer.

In addition, ISO has crafted a drone endorsement as a coverage extension to some of their commercial general liability (CGL) policy forms for insureds that seek to add drone coverage to CGL policies, he said.

The cost of physical damage coverage (also known as hull coverage) can be expensive, particularly for new or unproven unmanned aerial system platforms. Insuring $1 million in value could cost up to $100,000, depending on the UAV platform, with many policies typically in the $50,000 range, experts said.

Third-party liability, such as for bodily injury or property damage due to drones is also available, and is much less expensive, experts said. Product liability coverage would also be an important coverage to consider for UAV manufacturers.

A commercial stand-alone UAV liability policy for $1 million could start as low as $1,000, said Vikki Stone, senior vice president, Poms & Associates.

She said she has seen interest in such coverage from organizations that use drones in their business, such as entertainment, aerial mapping, residential construction and pipeline construction.

“We are seeing a lot of individuals who may have been hobbyists or pilots who are seeing an opportunity to start up a business,” she said.

“The bigger concern is rogue flyers. The industry has not yet really had enough time to assemble any sort of loss experience. As that evolves, we are likely to see changes in the marketplace, but it’s too new yet.”

Another issue that carriers and brokers are still grappling with is invasion of privacy, which could offer potential litigation concerns. That coverage is currently excluded by all drone insurers, according to Marsh’s recent report, “Dawning of the Drones: The Evolving Risk of Unmanned Aerial Systems.”

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Eamonn Cunningham, chief risk officer, Scentre Group

Eamonn Cunningham, chief risk officer, Scentre Group, said the first step to purchasing coverage would be to analyze meaningful gaps between what is in existing policies and what is needed.

“Absolutely do your homework in advance and sometimes you might need experts from outside the organization to understand what’s appropriate and what’s not,” he said.

“The processes that you go through in trying to determine what this relatively brand new risk means to you — it’s a real challenge.”

An organization may not need bespoke coverage once a gap analysis and risk assessment is performed, he said.

He compared drone coverage today with the purchase of cyber coverage a half-dozen years ago. At that time, many companies ended up buying a commodity — the typical cyber policy — instead of coverage that protected the specific risks faced by the organization.

“If you know exactly what you are buying, there’s less chance you will be disappointed when something happens and you find it doesn’t fit the specific manner in which you use, operate, sell or manufacture the drone,” he said.

Inadequate Regulations

Ella Atkins, associate professor, aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan, said federal regulations have hampered the safe use of drones because Congress exempted hobbyists flying under 500 feet from FAA rulemaking in the 2012 FAA reauthorization act.

“The problem is … the FAA’s policies focus on unmanned aircraft operating near airports,” she said.

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Ella Atkins, associate professor, aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan

“You need people on the ground to enforce low-altitude airspace flight, not the FAA. They have no presence away from airports [to control the situation].”

While Atkins doesn’t expect it to happen, some others are anticipating that the FAA may issue final regulations related to drone use by the end of this year.

But, if the FAA puts its focus on bans or strict regulations for low-altitude drone use away from airports, the effort will come to naught, she said. Instead, local and state governments and private landowners should be empowered to apply disorderly conduct and trespass laws as ways to control the hazards of rogue drone use.

“We need to start realizing that it’s a matter of what the person does with the drone, not the drone itself that is bad or good,” Atkins said.

In addition, she said, the FAA is ignoring a 1946 federal legal case that ruled property owners have control over the airspace immediately above their land.

Current rules mean that a farmer could be struck by a drone on his own property and have no recourse, or that Amazon.com could fly 10 feet over a home on its way to deliver a package and owe the property owner no compensation for use of the airspace.

“We need to start realizing that it’s a matter of what the person does with the drone, not the drone itself that is bad or good.” — Ella Atkins, associate professor, aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan

Recently, Amazon suggested a separate airspace lane for commercial drone delivery flights, which called for UAVs to fly between 200 feet and 400 feet. The air traffic control for that space would be handled by an automated computer system.

About 100 companies, including Amazon, Google and Verizon Communications, have agreed to work with NASA to help devise that air traffic system, according to reports.

There are no firm answers to the problem, said Jeff Power, regional aviation officer, U.S. Forest Service. He noted that one current law that could apply to firefighting is a restriction on interfering with public officials in the course of their duty.

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But, he said, it’s very difficult to track down the drone operators.

“A large part of it is education of the drone operators,” Power said, although he noted that one day soon it may be emergency service organizations that are operating drones to help combat hazardous situations.

In fact, Texas A&M University held a seminar this summer about the way drone technology could be used to help deal with deadly flooding.

“We understand the capabilities,” Power said, “but when we have the recreational drone operator who isn’t necessarily familiar with the FAA’s requirements and flight restrictions — that’s the big issue. It’s a matter of educating them and hopefully no one gets hurt in the meantime.”

Anne Freedman is managing editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

4 Companies That Rocked It by Treating Injured Workers as Equals; Not Adversaries

The 2018 Teddy Award winners built their programs around people, not claims, and offer proof that a worker-centric approach is a smarter way to operate.
By: | October 30, 2018 • 3 min read

Across the workers’ compensation industry, the concept of a worker advocacy model has been around for a while, but has only seen notable adoption in recent years.

Even among those not adopting a formal advocacy approach, mindsets are shifting. Formerly claims-centric programs are becoming worker-centric and it’s a win all around: better outcomes; greater productivity; safer, healthier employees and a stronger bottom line.

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That’s what you’ll see in this month’s issue of Risk & Insurance® when you read the profiles of the four recipients of the 2018 Theodore Roosevelt Workers’ Compensation and Disability Management Award, sponsored by PMA Companies. These four programs put workers front and center in everything they do.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top,” said Steve Legg, director of risk management for Starbucks.

Starbucks put claims reporting in the hands of its partners, an exemplary act of trust. The coffee company also put itself in workers’ shoes to identify and remove points of friction.

That led to a call center run by Starbucks’ TPA and a dedicated telephonic case management team so that partners can speak to a live person without the frustration of ‘phone tag’ and unanswered questions.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top.” — Steve Legg, director of risk management, Starbucks

Starbucks also implemented direct deposit for lost-time pay, eliminating stressful wait times for injured partners, and allowing them to focus on healing.

For Starbucks, as for all of the 2018 Teddy Award winners, the approach is netting measurable results. With higher partner satisfaction, it has seen a 50 percent decrease in litigation.

Teddy winner Main Line Health (MLH) adopted worker advocacy in a way that goes far beyond claims.

Employees who identify and report safety hazards can take credit for their actions by sending out a formal “Employee Safety Message” to nearly 11,000 mailboxes across the organization.

“The recognition is pretty cool,” said Steve Besack, system director, claims management and workers’ compensation for the health system.

MLH also takes a non-adversarial approach to workers with repeat injuries, seeing them as a resource for identifying areas of improvement.

“When you look at ‘repeat offenders’ in an unconventional way, they’re a great asset to the program, not a liability,” said Mike Miller, manager, workers’ compensation and employee safety for MLH.

Teddy winner Monmouth County, N.J. utilizes high-tech motion capture technology to reduce the chance of placing new hires in jobs that are likely to hurt them.

Monmouth County also adopted numerous wellness initiatives that help workers manage their weight and improve their wellbeing overall.

“You should see the looks on their faces when their cholesterol is down, they’ve lost weight and their blood sugar is better. We’ve had people lose 30 and 40 pounds,” said William McGuane, the county’s manager of benefits and workers’ compensation.

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Do these sound like minor program elements? The math says otherwise: Claims severity has plunged from $5.5 million in 2009 to $1.3 million in 2017.

At the University of Pennsylvania, putting workers first means getting out from behind the desk and finding out what each one of them is tasked with, day in, day out — and looking for ways to make each of those tasks safer.

Regular observations across the sprawling campus have resulted in a phenomenal number of process and equipment changes that seem simple on their own, but in combination have created a substantially safer, healthier campus and improved employee morale.

UPenn’s workers’ comp costs, in the seven-digit figures in 2009, have been virtually cut in half.

Risk & Insurance® is proud to honor the work of these four organizations. We hope their stories inspire other organizations to be true partners with the employees they depend on. &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]