Catastrophe Claims

Technology to the Rescue

Cutting-edge technology such as drones, satellites and 3D imaging allow for quicker, safer and more efficient claims handling.
By: | April 28, 2016 • 5 min read

The growing scale and severity of natural and man-made catastrophes makes it increasingly difficult for insurance companies and claims handlers to access affected disaster sites. It can take weeks or even months for loss adjusters to see the true extent of damage caused by events on the scale of Hurricanes Andrew and Katrina.

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But that’s changing with the development of technology such as drones, satellites and 3D imaging, which allow insurers to gather data and images quickly and efficiently, ultimately better protecting their clients against future risks.

There are still hurdles for insurers to overcome, starting with Federal Aviation Administration requirements for operating drones in U.S. airspace, as well as privacy issues, and the potential for property damage or civilian death in the event of a crash.

But uptake is still rising because of affordable hardware as well as increasing onboard instrumentation and offline data processing improvement.

“A lot of this new technology is great at assessing and understanding potential risks in a pre-loss scenario, as well as when an event happens,” said Sheri Wilson, national property claims director at Lockton.

“In some cases, there will always be the need for boots on the ground before the check is written, but this technology can certainly be used to get a more complete picture of what’s going on.”

Rise of the Drones

Jimmy Johnson, assistant vice president of commercial property claims at Zurich North America, said the main advantage of drones is the ability to provide access to difficult-to-reach disaster sites, allowing insurers and their customers to understand losses in greater detail.

“Being able to obtain information almost in real time, whether it’s taking pictures or communicating those losses, is a huge advantage not only to the insurer, but to their clients as well,” he said.

“The app allows them to record and send pictures and videos to the insurer to show them the extent of the damage and it is then uploaded to their server for them to assess.” — Andreas Shell, global claims executive of new technologies, Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty

Helen Thompson, director of commercial marketing at Esri, a geographic information system provider, said that another benefit is the speed of response, as well as use in hazardous situations, such as the port of Tianjin explosion last year.

“Drones are able to quickly assess large areas and identify, with human observation, the scope and scale of the disaster,” she said.

The main sticking point remains that only a handful of insurers, including State Farm, USAA and AIG, have obtained FAA approval to test drones for commercial use.

Gary Sullivan, vice president of property and subrogation claims at Erie Insurance, which was granted a license by the FAA last year to use drones for claims and in catastrophe situations, said that the biggest advantage is safety, as well as the time and cost efficiencies gained.

Andreas Shell, global claims executive of new technologies, Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty

Andreas Shell, global claims executive of new technologies, Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty

“It means the difference between keeping our employees on the ground versus the time and risk associated with having them climb a ladder to get onto a roof, and, ultimately, the imagery we obtain from a drone is just as good, if not better than we would otherwise be able to take,” he said.

Among the disadvantages, he said, were the need for a pilot’s license and having to get clearance to fly in no-go zones, for example, near airports and military bases.

Andreas Shell, global claims executive of new technologies at Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty, said one problem is that drones can only be used if the operator is in close proximity and maintains visual contact.

On top of that, he said, there are a host of legal and regulatory requirements.

“Right now, government agencies are tightening up these requirements more than ever due to the number of private operators currently out there,” he said.

Varying Image Formats

Video technology such as Skype and FaceTime has allowed insurers to develop smartphone apps that can be used to record property damage.

R5-16p38-39_5Damage3.indd“In effect, they allow the customer to become a part of the claims process,” said Shell of Allianz.

“[They can] send pictures and videos to the insurer to show them the extent of the damage.”

Such technology could be used in low value cases where sending out a loss adjuster may be more costly than paying the claim.

David Passman, national director of property claims for North America at Willis Towers Watson, said that when it comes to assessing wide areas of damage, satellites are often the best technology because they can capture a lot of data quickly.

The downside, he said, is that the picture quality may not be as good as a drone or 3D imaging.

“It enables you to take pictures before and after the event, and compare them side by side to determine not only what has happened to the property concerned, but also to the terrain around it,” he said.

“This can also help clients to put into action their business interruption or continuity plan, for example, by knowing what transport routes are open and putting in place an appropriate logistics strategy.”

Future of Technology

Thomas Haun, vice president of strategy for PrecisionHawk, an aerial data provider, said that as with all of these technologies, being able to quickly quantify the extent of damage and understand how safe something is, is critical in the response effort.

“Drones give you that ability to respond quickly and effectively to these types of disaster, but also to prevent or mitigate against future events,” he said.

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However, Bud Trice, vice president of catastrophe services at Crawford, warned that despite the many advantages, the biggest challenge with this type of technology is fragmentation, with the possibility of each insurer deciding to go its own way with a different solution, many of which may be incompatible with one another.

Randall Ishikawa, vice president of property risk solutions at EagleView, a 3D imaging company, said that in the long run, technology could help expedite claims handling and reduce operational and claims costs for insurers.

“At the end of the day it can save money for the insurance carriers, and from an underwriting perspective it can determine the viability of the risk concerned as to what action needs to be taken at renewal,” he said.

Erie’s Sullivan added that the potential benefits are huge.

“From an industry standpoint there’s enormous potential because in the future you might be able to fly the drones much more often and to assess the risks on your books in order to identify potential hazards before they happen,” he said. &

Alex Wright is a U.K.-based business journalist, who previously was deputy business editor at The Royal Gazette in Bermuda. You can reach him at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Black Swan: EMP

Chaos From Above

An electromagnetic pulse event triggered by the detonation of a low-yield nuclear device in Earth’s atmosphere triggers economic and societal chaos.
By: | July 27, 2017 • 9 min read

Scenario

The vessel that seeks to undo America arrives in the teeth of a storm.

The 4,000-ton Indonesian freighter Pandawas Viper sails towards California in December 2017. It is shepherded toward North America by a fierce Pacific winter storm, a so-called “Pineapple Express,” boasting 15-foot waves and winds topping 70 mph.

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Normally, Pandawas Viper carries cargo containers. This time she harbors a much more potent payload.

Unbeknownst to U.S. defense and intelligence officials, the Viper carries a single nuclear weapon, loaded onto a naval surface-to-air missile, or SAM, concealed below deck.

The warhead has an involved history. It was smuggled out of Kyrgyzstan in 1997, eventually finding its way into the hands of Islamic militants in Indonesia that are loosely affiliated with ISIS.

Even for these ambitious and murderous militants, outfitting a freighter with a nuclear device in secrecy and equipping it to sail to North America in the hopes of firing its deadly payload is quite an undertaking.

Close to $2 million in bribes and other considerations are paid out to ensure that the Pandawas Viper sets sail for America unmolested, her cargo a secret held by less than two dozen extremist Islamic soldiers.

The storm is a perfect cover.

Officials along the West Coast busy themselves tracking the storm, doing what they think is the right thing by warning residents about flooding and landslides, and securing ports against storm-related damage.

No one gives a second thought to the freighter flying Indonesian colors making its way toward the Port of Long Beach, as it apparently should be.

It’s only at two in the morning on Sunday, December 22, that an alert Port of San Diego administrator charged with monitoring ocean-going cargo traffic sees something that causes him to do a double take.

GPS tracking information indicates to him that the Pandawas Viper is not heading to Long Beach, as indicated on its digital shipping logs, but is veering toward Baja, Calif.

Were it to keep its present course, it would arrive at Tijuana, Mexico.

The port administrator dutifully notifies the U.S. Coast Guard.

“Indonesian freighter Pandawas Viper off course, possibly storm-related navigational difficulties,” he emails on a secure digital communication channel operated by the port and the Coast Guard.

“Monitor and alert as necessary,” his message, including the ship’s current coordinates, concludes.

In turn, a communications officer in the Coast Guard’s Alameda, Calif. offices dutifully alerts members of the Coast Guard’s Pacific basin security team. She’s done her job but she’s about an hour late.

At 3:15 am Pacific time on December 22, the deck on the Pandawas Viper opens and the naval surface-to-air missile, operated remotely by a militant operative in Jakarta, is let loose.

It’s headed not for Los Angeles or San Diego, but rather Earth’s atmosphere, where it detonates about 50 miles above the surface.

There it interacts with the planet’s atmosphere, ionosphere and magnetic field to produce an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, which radiates down to Earth, creating additional electric or ground-induced currents.

The operative’s aim is perfect. With a charge of hundreds and in some cases thousands of volts, the GICs cause severe physical damage to all unprotected electronics and transformers. Microchips operate in the range of 1.5 to 5 volts and thus are obliterated by the billions.

As a result, the current created by the blast knocks out 70 percent of the nation’s grid. What began as an overhead flash of light plunges much of the nation into darkness.

The first indication for most people that there is a problem is that their trusty cellphones can do no more than perform calculations, tell them the time or play their favorite tunes.

As minutes turn to hours, however, people realize that they’ve got much bigger concerns on their hands. Critical infrastructure for transportation and communications ceases. Telecommunication breakdowns mean that fire and police services are unreachable.

For the alone, the elderly and the otherwise vulnerable, panic sets in quickly.

Hospital administrators feverishly calculate how long their emergency power supplies can last.

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Supermarkets and other retailers anticipating one of their biggest shopping days of the year on that Monday, December 23, instead wake up to cold homes and chilling prospects.

Grocery stores with their electricity cut off are unable to open and product losses begin to mount. Banks don’t open. Cash machines are inoperable.

In the colder parts of the United States, the race to stay warm is on.  Within a day’s time in some poorer neighborhoods, furniture is broken up and ignited for kindling.

As a result, fires break out, fires that in many cases will not draw a response from firefighting crews due to the communication breakdown.

As days of interruption turn into weeks and months, starvation, rioting and disease take many.

Say good-bye to most of the commercial property/casualty insurance companies that you know. The resulting chaos adds up to more than $1 trillion in economic losses. Property, liability, credit, marine, space and aviation insurers fail in droves.

Assume widespread catastrophic transformer damage, long-term blackouts, lengthy restoration times and chronic shortages. It will take four to 10 years for a full recovery.

The crew which launched the naval surface-to-air missile that resulted in all of this chaos makes a clean getaway. All seven that were aboard the Pandawas Viper make their way to Ensenada, Mexico, about 85 miles south of San Diego via high-speed hovercraft.

Those that bankrolled this deadly trip were Muslim extremists. But this boat crew knows no religion other than gold.

Well-paid by their suppliers, they enjoy several rounds of the finest tequila Ensenada can offer, and a few other diversions, before slipping away to Chile, never to be brought to justice.

Observations

This outcome does not spring from the realm of fiction.

In May, 1999, during the NATO bombing of the former Yugoslavia, high-ranking Russian officials meeting with a U.S. delegation to discuss the Balkans conflict raised the notion of an EMP attack that would paralyze the United States.

That’s according to a report of a commission to assess the threat to the United States from an EMP attack, which was submitted to the U.S. Congress in 2004. But Russia is not alone in this threat or in this capability.

Wes Dupont, vice president and general counsel, Allied World Assurance Company

North Korea also has the capability and the desire, according to experts, and there is speculation that recent rocket launches by that country are dress rehearsals to detonate a nuclear device in our atmosphere and carry out an EMP attack on the United States.

The first defense against such an attack is our missile defense. But some experts believe this country is ill-equipped to defend against this sort of scenario.

“In terms of risk mitigation, if an event like this happens, then that means the best risk mitigation we have has already failed, which would be our military defense systems, because the terrorists have already launched their weapon, and it’s already exploded,” said Wes Dupont, a vice president and general counsel with the Allied World Assurance Company.

The U.S power grid is relatively unprotected against EMP blasts, Dupont said.

And a nuclear blast is the worst that can occur. There isn’t much mitigation that’s been done because many methods are unproven, and it’s expensive, he added.

Lloyd’s and others have studied coronal mass ejections, solar superstorms that would produce a magnetic field that could enter our atmosphere and wipe out our grid.  Scientists believe that an EMP attack would carry a force far greater than any coronal mass ejection that has ever been measured.

An extended blackout, with some facilities taking years to return to full functionality, is a scenario that no society on earth is ready for.

“Traditional scenarios only assume blackouts for a few days and losses seem to be moderate …” wrote executives with Allianz in a 2011 paper outlining risk management options for power blackout risks.

“If an event like this happens, then that means the best risk mitigation we have has already failed … because the terrorists have already launched their weapon, and it’s already exploded.” — Wes Dupont, vice president and general counsel, Allied World Assurance Company

“But if we are considering longer-lasting blackouts, which are most likely from space weather or coordinated cyber or terrorist attacks, the impacts to our society and economy might be significant,” the Allianz executives wrote.

“Critical infrastructure such as communication and transport would be hampered,” the Allianz executives wrote.

“The heating and water supply would stop, and production processes and trading would cease. Emergency services like fire, police or ambulance could not be called due to the breakdown of the telecommunications systems. Hospitals would only be able to work as long as the emergency power supply is supplied with fuel. Financial trading, cash machines and supermarkets in turn would have to close down, which would ultimately cause a catastrophic scenario,” according to Allianz.

It would cost tens of billions to harden utility towers in this country so that they wouldn’t be rendered inoperable by ground-induced currents. That may seem like a lot of money, but it’s really not when we think about the trillion dollars or more in damages that could result from an EMP attack, not to mention the loss of life.

Allianz estimates that when a blackout is underway, financial trading institutions, for example, suffer losses of more than $6 million an hour; telecommunications companies lose about $30,000 per minute, according to the Allianz analysis.

Insurers, of course, would be buffeted should a rogue actor pull off this attack.

Lou Gritzo, vice president and manager of research, FM Global

“Depending on the industries and the locations that are affected, it could really change the marketplace, insurers and reinsurers as well,” said Lou Gritzo, a vice president and manager of research at FM Global.

Gritzo said key practices to defend against this type of event are analyzing supply chains to establish geographically diverse supplier options and having back-up systems for vital operations.

The EMP commission of 2004 argued that the U.S. needs to be vigilant and punish with extreme prejudice rogue entities that are endeavoring to obtain the kind of weapon that could be used in an attack like this.

It also argued that we need to protect our critical infrastructure, carry out research to better understand the effects of such an attack, and create a systematic recovery plan. Understanding the condition of critical infrastructure in the wake of an attack and being able to communicate it will be key, the commission argued.

The commission pointed to a blackout in the Midwest in 2003, in which key system operators did not have an alarm system and had little information on the changing condition of their assets as the blackout unfolded.

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The commission’s point is that we have the resources to defend against this scenario. But we must focus on the gravity of the threat and employ those resources.

Our interconnected society and the steady increase in technology investment only magnify this risk on a weekly basis.

“Our vulnerability is increasing daily as our use of and dependence on electronics continues to grow,” the EMP commission members wrote back in 2004.

But “correction is feasible and well within the nation’s means and resources to accomplish,” the commission study authors wrote. &

Dan Reynolds is editor-in-chief of Risk & Insurance. He can be reached at [email protected]