USAA tests drones after hailstorm

Unmanned aircraft should save time, money, officials say

By Marilyn Moritz - Reporter

SAN ANTONIO - In the wake of last week's monster hailstorm, insurance giant USAA began testing its drones in a real-life scenario by launching them in a Northwest Side neighborhood.

Piloted by remote control, the drone, which is equipped with camera and sensors, buzzed over rooftops recording images of storm-ravaged shingles.

With thousands of insurance claims after the storm that did an estimated $1.4 billion in damage, it was an opportunity for USAA to test its unmanned aircraft.

"Typically, we would send our normal method of inspection, which is sending someone to stand on a roof and take measurements and draw circles of where the hail is," said  Kristina Tomasetti, USAA's director of innovation strategy. "Using drones allows us to do it quicker, saving time and (the) expense of sending someone up on the roof."

Tom Ryan, who lives in the neighborhood, said it sounded like his roof took a beating.

"When the rain came, it came down in buckets," he said. "All of a sudden, we see these big things bouncing all around. It was hail."

The spring storm pummeled a wide swath of homes, businesses and vehicles, busting out windows and ripping up roofs.

The drone industry is booming. The FAA has issued more than 4,000 special permits for commercial purposes.

But there are rules to follow. The drone must be flown by a licensed pilot and kept within the line of sight.

Also, neighbors within 500 feet must give permission.

Drones are not replacing inspectors but rather supplementing what they do, according to Tomasetti.

However, with the ability to go where human inspectors cannot, drones are beginning to take off in the insurance industry.

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