Assurance for Insurance

Insurance companies use aerial imagery for risk mitigation as well as post-disaster response


Insurance companies are the gutsy gamblers of the business world. Like high rollers in a Vegas casino, they spend their days playing the odds in a game of real-life roulette. Every policy they issue is a roll of the dice, and every claim a customer files—a flooded basement, a totaled car, a home invasion, a devastating house fire—is a lost bet. If they play their cards right, however, they can walk away with a windfall.

As any actuary, underwriter, or adjuster can attest, the difference between winning a bet and losing it is information. And to make gambles that are responsible rather than reckless, insurers need lots of it. Some of the best information they can acquire is geospatial in nature.

“Everything you insure has a location, so geospatial information is increasingly important to insurance companies, many of which want to leverage technology to improve the way they do business,” said Rob Agee, vice president of business development at Vexcel Imaging, an Austrian maker of aerial camera systems, mobile mapping platforms, and photogrammetry software.

For those companies, a bird’s-eye view can be a Holy Grail. That makes insurers among the most voracious users of commercial airborne imagery, according to Paul Smith, a business development manager at Hexagon Geosystems, whose HxGN Content Program is a commercial marketplace for airborne imagery. “Insurance is a big driver for us,” Smith said. “Insurance companies use aerial imagery on the front end for risk mitigation—looking at properties and portfolios before events [to assess their risk exposure based on] proximity to places that could be subject to fires, flooding, or hailstorms. Then, they also use it on the back end to feed into their post-disaster response.”

The “blue sky” view can help insurance companies spot features like swimming pools and trampolines that add additional risk to homeowners’ policies. The “grey sky” view, on the other hand, can help them assess everything from burned homes to damaged roofs.

Historically, insurance companies have used satellite instead of airborne imagery to obtain both views. Recently, however, its high spatial resolution convinced the industry that the latter would better suit its needs, according to Agee, who said property and casualty insurers in 2017 decided to pool their resources to create the Geospatial Intelligence Center (GIC). Established by the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) in partnership with Vexcel Imaging and Esri, the GIC’s goal is to create a shared database of commercial airborne imagery from fixed-wing aircraft that is jointly funded by and accessible to NICB members.

The GIC has two primary charges, according to Agee. The first is mapping the country’s top metropolitan areas with high-resolution aerial imagery—including oblique imagery—every year and mapping the entire continental U.S. every other year. The second is mapping impacted areas immediately after a disaster, yielding imagery in short order that insurers can use and share with first responders.

The result is a “before and after” picture that makes underwriting and adjusting faster, more efficient, and more accurate.

Because the GIC is a collaborative entity comprising shared resources, insurers enjoy lower costs and decreased risk. Consumers, meanwhile, receive both financial and emotional returns.

“It’s incredibly valuable because insurance companies can settle claims in days if your house is a total loss during a disaster,” Agee explained. “The customer doesn’t even have to call up the insurer anymore and say that their house is damaged; because they have the data, the insurer is now the one calling the customer and saying, ‘We see that your house is a total loss so we’re sending you a check right away.’ That’s changed the entire conversation between insurers and policyholders, and it’s really improving the customer experience.”

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