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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
Top 6 Risks for Shipping Cargo
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Commercial Auto Warning: Emerging Frequency and Severity Trends Threaten Policyholders
The slow but steady climb out of the Great Recession means businesses can finally transition out of survival mode and set their sights on growth and expansion.
The construction, retail and energy sectors in particular are enjoying an influx of business — but getting back on their feet doesn’t come free of challenges.
Increasingly, expensive commercial auto losses hamper the upward trend. From 2012 to 2015, auto loss costs increased a cumulative 20 percent, according to the Insurance Services Office.
“Since the recession ended, commercial auto losses have challenged businesses trying to grow,” said David Blessing, SVP and Chief Underwriting Officer for National Insurance Casualty at Liberty Mutual Insurance. “As the economy improves and businesses expand, it means there are more vehicles on the road covering more miles. That is pushing up the frequency of auto accidents.”
For companies with transportation exposure, costly auto losses can hinder continued growth. Buyers who partner closely with their insurance brokers and carriers to understand these risks – and the consultative support and tools available to manage them – are better positioned to protect their employees, fleets, and businesses.
Liberty Mutual’s David Blessing discusses key challenges in the commercial auto market.
“Since the recession ended, commercial auto losses have challenged businesses trying to grow. As the economy improves and businesses expand, it means there are more vehicles on the road covering more miles. That is pushing up the frequency of auto accidents.”
–David Blessing, SVP and Chief Underwriting Officer for National Insurance Casualty, Liberty Mutual Insurance
More Accidents, More Dollars
Rising claims costs typically stem from either increased frequency or severity — but in the case of commercial auto, it’s both. This presents risk managers with the unique challenge of blunting a double-edged sword.
Cumulative miles driven in February, 2016, were up 5.6 percent compared to February, 2015, Blessing said. Unfortunately, inexperienced drivers are at the helm for a good portion of those miles.
A severe shortage of experienced commercial drivers — nearing 50,000 by the end of 2015, according to the American Trucking Association — means a limited pool to choose from. Drivers completing unfamiliar routes or lacking practice behind the wheel translate into more accidents, but companies facing intense competition for experienced drivers with good driving records may be tempted to let risk management best practices slip, like proper driver screening and training.
Distracted driving, whether it’s as a result of using a phone, eating, or reading directions, is another factor contributing to the number of accidents on the road. Recent findings from the National Safety Council indicate that as much as 27% of crashes involved drivers talking or texting on cell phones.
The factors driving increased frequency in the commercial auto market.
In addition to increased frequency, a variety of other factors are driving up claim severity, resulting in higher payments for both bodily injury and property damage.
Treating those injured in a commercial auto accident is more expensive than ever as medical costs rise at a faster rate than the overall Consumer Price Index.
“Medical inflation continues to go up by about three percent, whereas the core CPI is closer to two percent,” Blessing said.
Changing physical medicine fee schedules in some states also drive up commercial auto claim costs. California, for example, increased the cost of physical medicine by 38 percent over the past two years and will increase it by a total of 64 percent by the end of 2017.
And then there is the cost of repairing and replacing damaged vehicles.
“There are a lot of new vehicles on the road, and those cost more to repair and replace,” Blessing said. “In the last few years, heavy truck sales have increased at double digit rates — 15 percent in 2014, followed by an additional 11 percent in 2015.”
The impact is seen in the industry-wide combined ratio for commercial auto coverage, which per Conning, increased from 103 in 2014 to 105 for 2015, and is forecast to grow to nearly 110 by 2018.
None of these trends show signs of slowing or reversing, especially as the advent of driverless technology introduces its own risks and makes new vehicles all the more valuable. Now is the time to reign in auto exposure, before the cost of claims balloons even further.
The factors driving up commercial auto claims severity.
Data Opens Window to Driver Behavior
To better manage the total cost of commercial auto insurance, Blessing believes risk management should focus on the driver, not just the vehicle. In this journey, fleet telematics data plays a key role, unlocking insight on the driver behavior that contributes to accidents.
“Roughly half of large fleets have telematics built into their trucks,” Blessing said. “Traditionally, they are used to improve business performance by managing maintenance and routing to better control fuel costs. But we see opportunity there to improve driver performance, and so do risk managers.”
Liberty Mutual’s Managing Vital Driver Performance tool helps clients parse through data provided by telematics vendors and apply it toward cultivating safer driving habits.
“Risk managers can get overwhelmed with all of the data coming out of telematics. They may not know how to set the right parameters, or they get too many alerts from the provider,” Blessing said.
“We can help take that data and turn it into a concrete plan of action the customer can use to build a better risk management program by monitoring driver behavior, identifying the root causes of poor driving performance and developing training and other approaches to improve performance.”
Actions risk managers can take to better manage commercial auto frequency and severity trends.
Rather than focusing on the vehicle, the Managing Vital Driver Performance tool focuses on the driver, looking for indicators of aggressive driving that may lead to accidents, such as speeding, sharp turns and hard or sudden braking.
The tool helps a risk manager see if drivers consistently exhibit any of these behaviors, and take actions to improve driving performance before an accident happens. Liberty’s risk control consultants can also interview drivers to drill deeper into the data and find out what causes those behaviors in the first place.
Sometimes patterns of unsafe driving reveal issues at the management level.
“Our behavior-based program is also for supervisors and managers, not just drivers,” Blessing said. “This is where we help them set the tone and expectations with their drivers.”
For example, if data analysis and interviews reveal that fatigue factors into poor driving performance, management can identify ways to address that fatigue, including changing assigned work levels and requirements. Are drivers expected to make too many deliveries in a single shift, or are they required to interact with dispatch while driving?
“Management support of safety is so important, and work levels and expectations should be realistic,” Blessing said.
A Consultative Approach
In addition to its Managing Vital Driver Performance tool, Liberty’s team of risk control consultants helps commercial auto policyholders establish screening criteria for new drivers, creating a “driver scorecard” to reflect a potential new hire’s driving record, any Motor Vehicle Reports, years of experience, and familiarity with the type of vehicle that a company uses.
“Our whole approach is consultative,” Blessing said. “We probe and listen and try to understand a client’s strengths and challenges, and then make recommendations to help them establish the best practices they need.”
“With our approach and tools, we do something no one else in the industry does, which is perform the root cause analysis to help prevent accidents, better protecting a commercial auto policyholder’s employees and bottom line.”
This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with Liberty Mutual Insurance. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.