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Hail and Roof Investigations 2.0

How technology is changing the field and making things safer.

August 19, 2015 Photo

In an era of seemingly daily technological advances, one might wonder why most roofing investigations are still conducted as they were decades ago, reliant upon observation by the human eye and contingent on the inspector’s training and experience. With few exceptions, folding ladders and Cougar Paws are the most sophisticated tools being utilized on a roof. However, with a host of products and services addressing issues of safety, efficiency, and accuracy, roofing investigations are poised for an upgrade.

The insurance industry has begun to embrace technologies with potential to mitigate safety issues, improve the overall claims process, and help to overcome issues of manpower and knowledge that increased claims volumes exacerbate. These emerging technologies will enhance roof and hail investigations in all stages, from planning and data collection to on-site evaluation and resolution.

Advanced Weather Analytics

Advanced meteorological tools, innovative data collection methods, and remote sensing allow an abundance of information to be obtained prior to ever setting foot on a roof. Some companies have in-house meteorological resources that continue to improve weather reporting services for hail and wind events. Insurers can use these products to perform a triage on their policies in force in areas affected by storms and make preliminary determinations regarding which customers may have damage, which likely have no damage, and which require a closer look.

The technology utilized during this planning phase allows the insurer to allocate limited resources more efficiently where they are needed most. Roofs with highly probable damage according to weather data have the potential to be desk adjusted (the least costly and easiest method), while roofs with likely damage can be adjusted by most field personnel. Roofs that weather data show are unlikely to have damage may require the most experienced claims professionals or perhaps even a third-party forensic engineer to assess whether damage is present and determine cause when claims arise.

Remote Sensing Capabilities

On-site investigations during the claims process historically have meant first-person inspection on the roof. It is now possible—in limited applications—to perform comprehensive and science-based roofing investigations without the inspector ever leaving the ground. Robots, aerial drones, and other remotely operated vehicles are emerging as valuable tools in roofing investigations.

Tober Technology’s Roof Rover is the first commercially available robot for roofing inspections. According to the company, the Roof Rover has the ability to navigate and examine asphalt shingle roofs with pitches as great as 15:12 (51 degrees from horizontal). A portable, manually powered elevator-like system lifts the robot as high as 30 feet to the roof’s edge, where it is then driven onto the roof. The robot is navigated remotely using a tablet PC. Two onboard high-resolution video cameras are used to help navigate across the roof as well as record video and still images of defects or other areas of interest. Various sensors help prevent accidents by providing autonomous traversing of roof peaks as well as roof edge awareness. Updates to Roof Rover’s measurement and image tracking capabilities will be required prior to it being a complete solution for roofing investigations.

Aerial drones, in the form of multiple-rotor helicopters (multicopters), have received a lot of attention for their potential applications in improving efficiency and safety in roofing, hail, and other catastrophe claims investigations. Carrier and vendor interest was recently revived when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released their long-awaited proposal for rules governing the commercial use of small drones.

Multicopters promise to provide safe, fast, and inexpensive access to almost any roof in commercial, residential, and industrial settings. Today, there are dozens of multicopter designs and brands available in the hobbyist marketplace, such as DJI’s popular Phantom model. All but the smallest and least-expensive models contain their own high-resolution camera or have the ability to accommodate a camera from a third party, such as GoPro. The best of these cameras have the ability to record both high-definition video and still images of roof surfaces in great detail. Additionally, although some skill and knowledge is required to successfully fly multicopters, built-in gyroscopes, geographic information systems, auto-land functionalities, and other features increase accessibility to operators with a wide range of skill levels.

Adoption of multicopter or robotic inspections likely will hinge on both operator experience and acceptance of inspection results. If users find that these tools make their jobs easier and more efficient, the technology will succeed. Although it is likely that some property owners will remain skeptical, utilizing a drone or robot to examine a roof surface without the incorporation of human bias should go a long way in alleviating their concerns.

As technologies trickle down from the military and other well-funded sources, additional sensors that enhance the drone or robot’s capabilities will become affordable. Thermal imaging sensors already are available, and work is underway on others that may one day determine a roof’s age or “see” roof surface depressions that are otherwise invisible to the eye. The most innovative technological advances likely will come in the form of software upgrades for both drones and robots. Some drones already have the ability to operate autonomously and fly a predetermined route in order to provide 100 percent photographic coverage of a given area. Software that allows a camera to accurately detect, measure, and record defects or other surface anomalies also is within the realm of possibilities.

Satellite and Aerial Photography

Few activities performed by a roof inspector are more time consuming or dangerous than measuring the roof of a “McMansion.” Satellite and aerial photography images are constantly improving, and even though these images are unlikely to provide for close investigation of individual hail impacts, they are being used to calculate information related to a roof’s size and configuration. These images, once analyzed, can quickly and inexpensively produce accurate and highly detailed drawings of a roof, eliminating hours of tedious, dangerous work by an investigator.

Mobile Apps

Even with the embrace of new technologies, it likely will be a long time before inspections conducted primarily by a person on a roof are obsolete. However, even this method can be improved upon using apps and other tools on a mobile device. Free and inexpensive apps are available for both Apple and Android devices that range from simple roof pitch calculators (VELUX Roof Pitch) to complete roof investigation and reporting software. Some offer multiple tools, including the ability to measure roof slopes, lengths, and directions, as well as comparisons of a roof’s actual damage side-by-side with numerous exemplars to help determine the underlying cause.

The days of juggling a clipboard and heavy camera while crawling about on a roof also may be over sooner than later. Products such as Apple’s iPads or similar Android devices now contain excellent cameras and offer applications and stylus devices that ease note taking and sketching in the field. Note-taking apps such as Goodnotes, Penultimate, and Noteshelf make notes and drawings more legible and allow the incorporation of photos when paired with inexpensive styli such as the Jot from Adonit or Bamboo from Wacom.

Expensive infrared cameras have been around for some time, but recently, single-purpose units have dropped significantly in price. Add-on devices for the iPhone have been developed by companies such as FLIR, too. These devices are useful particularly in commercial roofing applications because of their ability to spot leaks in flat roofs based upon the temperature differences in water-soaked versus dry materials.

As baby boomers can attest, retirement age is fast approaching for many in the field. With the impending exit of so many seasoned professionals in the industry, a trove of experience and knowledge will be leaving, too. This and the industry’s ever-evolving personnel structure means that less experienced staff will be tasked with performing roofing investigations on tighter schedules. Technology will help to build a bridge between the experience the industry will lose over the next several years and the innovative solutions that will help address that shortfall, not to mention improving safety, efficiency, and the claims experience for both carriers and insureds.  

About The Authors
Russell Zeckner

Russell Zeckner, P.E., CFEI, is a forensic engineer--principal consultant for Donan Engineering. He has been a CLM Fellow since 2015 and can be reached at (800) 482-5611, ext. 2019,  rzeckner@donan.com

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