Syracuse - MS in Communications

How Drones Can Help Support Property Damage Reporting

For my field test in the Emerging Media Platforms course at Syracuse University, I studied the usefulness and different applications possible using a drone. I purchased a Holy Stone Drone on Amazon for $120. As someone who has always been interested in filming, and using remote control vehicles, video drones have been of interest to me for many years. The ability to fly high above crowds and show a view that can be nearly impossible to actually see with your own eyes is also of prime interest. I still remember art class in elementary school where the most popular angle while drawing at a young age was Bird’s Eye view, despite no one having much experience seeing that in person.

Civilian drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, have grown vastly in popularity over the last few years. As of 2018 there were over 1 million registered drones in the U.S. according to FAA, which handles all air traffic in the country. Consider the number of users who likely haven’t registered their drones and the user database grows even more. In addition, my drone was so light that it doesn’t require a FAA registration. The FAA estimates the number of drones will increase to 3.5 million by 2021. According to The Motley Fool, “Angel List has 639 drone start-ups on its site, each with an average valuation of $4.8 million.” Considering that’s less than 13 start-ups per state, there is still plenty of room to grow the businesses and industry.

While most drones (88%) are owned by hobbyists with the goal of creating personal stories, doing research, and more, there are also people and companies that use drones for commercial uses. Firefighters have used drones to dump water on extensive flames. Drones are certainly safer and less costly that having a helicopter do that job. Dominos and Amazon have discussed plans to use drones to deliver pizzas and packages, respectively. Other uses include land surveying and filming for use in movies or for businesses.

Drone
An Amazon Drone is en route to a delivery drop off.

In addition to video, drones can take high quality photos, with the most expensive models having GPS and Bluetooth capabilities. During my research I found drone models ranging from $40 to a $32,000 model that is used for movie shoots. Depending on the use of the drone, the quality of video is important, as well as it’s size (for carrying objects), and the length of time the battery lasts. My model has a battery that lasts only ten minutes while requiring 90 minutes to charge. That $32,000 model can hold up to 100 pounds and has a flight time of five hours. It also has propellers that can cause actual damage to people or property. The Holy Stone has plastic propellers making it safer, but more likely to crash, and blow away in the wind. More on that later.

I began my field test wanting to tell the story of a building. To focus on the wear and tear that buildings take over the years, especially in New Orleans with powerful storms impacting the region. A drone would be able to show portions of the building that the public can’t see with the naked eye. The longer I tested flying a drone, the more I realized I wanted a more controlled environment. The possibilities flying a drone in downtown were too high for my liking. Eventually I looked into what buildings I could focus on closer to my home and realized the best option would in fact be my house.

Hypothesis

I believe that drones could be used to report on property damage after a storm impacts an area, saving time and potential injuries for users. 

Along with that they can be used by people who need to assess damage for insurance claims and additional information. My target audience with this field test includes reporters, newsroom executives, and property damage assessors. Many newsrooms already have drones that are used for a variety of story types. My goal with the reporters is to continue to promote the need for them to be creative in their story ideas. We want to establish the fact the drones don’t need to be used for one particular type of story. Additionally, with seemingly more devastating storms every year, disaster reporting has grown, and includes telling the story of how people rebuild their lives and their properties. The drone doesn’t only need to be used immediately following a storm to show vast flooding and destroyed property. In this case, it can be used to tell a very personal story about the cost of storm damage, and the detailed look at all that goes into repairing damage to roofs and other parts of a building.

National Geographic reported that “the U.S. suffered more than $200 billion worth of damage from 17 named storms during the (2017 hurricane) season.” Drones are already used to cover damage to a large area but don’t appear to be used as much in more stable environments. 

Similarly to reporters, damage assessors spend many hours during a day out in the field. Drones can be a very time efficient way to get the video and pictures need to assess the damage and give recommendations on next steps for fixing the property. It would seem that a well qualified drone operator would be able to save time during an assessment, allowing for more assessments to be done in the same time period, leading to more money for the individual and company, as well as faster assessments of homes. This would allow for homeowners to begin rebuilding earlier than is the case currently. So reporters and assessors can put away the ladders and pull out the drones. And potentially they can save money on health insurance by decreasing the number of slips and falls while on a roof.

The Field Test

poolhouse

During my field test I used my house as the building. It was both more convenient than using one downtown (my initial plan) and safer from a legal standpoint (fewer people to injure/upset). The plan was to fly the drone above the roof and get a bird’s eye view of it, as well as some up close shots on specific sections of it, as if that part of the roof was actually damaged. In addition, I planned to land the drone on the slanted roof to ensure it could handle landing and taking off on a non flat surface.

For the actual test, the drone took off from my balcony and I was able to get it about level with the roof. However, there’s not really the ability to turn the drone while it’s in the air, which should be a key option. For the most part, the direction the camera is facing is the direction you fly. When I pressed forward to go towards the roof, the drone actually went the opposite way, about 20 feet above my pool. I stayed calm and tried to level out the drone to attempt to move it toward the house again, but each small move of the joystick led to about 10 foot movements of the drone. With a large area behind the house this gave me room to maneuver without going over the neighbors fence, but there were a few times where it got very close.

Finally, in an effort to restart and try again, I pressed the return button. The function of the button is to return the drone to the controller once pressed. Instead, when I pressed the button the drone made a quick sudden movement towards my neighbor’s yard, which made me pull back on the controls, eventually landing it in a tree. I turned off the motor to keep it from damaging itself, without realizing that the propellers spinning were what was keeping it in the tree. Once the motor shut off the drone fell about 10 feet, bounced on the pool deck, and splashed into the pool. It took me about 15 seconds to run down to the pool and get it out, but by then it was too late. The drone was water-logged, and the video did not save because I did not push the end video button before it made the splash. I was mostly disappointed by not being able to attempt another test, as well as not being able to view what I imagine would have been captivating video.

I would have flown the drone out front of my house, to avoid the possibility of landing in the pool, but we have a very large tree in front that drastically limits the chances of getting high enough to record the roof. Out back the drone only needed to fly about 10 feet up. 

While I don’t have video from the test, I do have video from earlier flying tests.

 

Target Audience

Eric Brinkhorst met Drone

foto eric brinkhorst

I reached out to reporters I have connections with and heard back from Hannah Grabenstein, a reporter with the Associated Press who indicated that she doesn’t have experience with the technology yet. Despite not using a drone, she had used drone footage to assist in stories. From conversations with a few other connections, I got the idea that this is a common theme among reporters. A drone’s ability to bring varying angles for shots makes it a popular technology for news agencies. Meanwhile, the price tag on more intermediate and advanced drones, limits the number of them a newsroom can have, leaving limited resources and leading to many companies having only a few qualified drone operators.

 

Target Metrics

Target metrics for the field test include height flown, duration of flight, percentage of roof surveyed, and attempts needed for a successful flight. While I can’t report on all of these metrics, I can say that the flight time was about 90 seconds, and I was only able to do one flight attempt. The drone I used weighed five ounces, can fly 50-100 meters from the controller, and measures in at 12.6 x 3.3 x 12.6 inches.

As mentioned earlier, the maximum flight time for the drone is ten minutes, but is closer to seven minutes. Thus, it was important to figure out how much usable video I could record in that short of a flight time. The drone came with a removable SD memory card, allowing users to swap out memory cards while in the field. In a larger scale roll out of a drone program we would likely need to buy drones that have a longer flight time or buy enough replaceable batteries to allow reporters and assessors to look at multiple places in one trip.

 

Conclusions Based on the Field Test

why-Its-fine-to-fail

In my case it certainly failed expectations, but I still see the possibility of this being an effective technology for this use in the future. Using a drone would allow the user to survey multiple homes in a short period of time, lesson individual risk, and record captivating video and pictures. Another way this did not meet my expectations is that I imagined flying a drone being a much easier task. I’ve been an active video game user for twenty years and the controller is almost identical to that of an Xbox One controller. Yet, it wasn’t that easy. A drone that can turn 360 degrees will definitely be needed, in addition to many other improvements for this to become mainstream for reporters and assessors.

Potential Improvements

To roll this out on a large-scale we would likely need to invest in more intermediate level models. Drones that are larger and require a FAA registration should be easier to manage than the one i used. Larger drones are more powerful and sturdy, have the longer necessary flight time, and better cameras. If we were to order hundreds of Holy Stones I would be concerned because of the need for easier controls, a more stable device, a camera that can move and not be fixated, and the fact that its lightweight body can easily be affected in low winds.

A full-scale training program would need to be available as well. A six-week course covering the device, controls and operation, managing the stored digital media, and troubleshooting would help to avoid unwanted outcomes. Additionally, a well staffed 24/7 support line would be beneficial. Because of the variance of experience, companies could certainly be concerned about drones damaging the property that is being filmed, injuring people, or breaking, leading to a large loss of investment. Currently many companies have a few operators on staff, so reporters and other employees would need to be able to assist. Here is a drone I would recommend for a future project. The flight time on this is about 25 minutes and at $400 it seems to be a pretty good value.

 

The Future of Drone Usage

drone drugs
The potential to bring life saving services to people in need is promising.

Looking at the future of the technology from my target audience’s perspective, I see drones becoming mainstream for reporters and journalists, but still limited for damage assessors. The number one priority of journalists is to tell an interesting and effective story. Drones have already shown they can do this. Many newsrooms across the country have a drone that is used for various stories, and the next step is to inspire the team members to continue to be creative while thinking of new opportunities to use it. Using a drone to report on property damage will require input from legal experts within the companies. As they are a relatively new technology, the law on how and where you can use drones is somewhat cloudy. Recording drone footage from 100-200 feet in the air may be acceptable, but in order to get closer and see the details of the impact from storms, reporters may need to get the homeowner’s written approval. Certainly if you are looking to report up close on a roof collapse, which may lead to the camera showing rooms inside the house, the backyard, and other personal areas.

Property damage assessors don’t seem as technology friendly as reporters. As part of the industry journalists must be aware of new emerging media platforms. I can certainly see how assessors could be hesitant to adopt the technology until they witness the benefits up close. Bringing a professional drone flyer along for a damage assessment and allowing the individual to demonstrate how easily and quickly video and pictures can be taken would definitely help to bridge the gap. It will also be important to educate the homeowners on the benefits, as skeptical ones may not allow for reporters or assessors to fly the drone on property. And without approval, that drone might get shot out of the air.

For the global population I think the next step is drone delivery. Amazon performed its first drone delivery as seen below in December 2016. The interest is certainly there, with people wanting delivery times to decrease, even from the standard two days of Amazon Prime. Along with Amazon’s one hour delivery that is available in some cities, 30 minute or less drone delivery would truly changed the way we shop online. As expected though, the service is tied up some in legal issues. Amazon drones are much larger and sturdier than the lower priced model I tested, meaning its ability to injure someone is also increased. Additionally, so many areas are technically no drone fly zones, limiting delivery opportunities to more rural or suburban guests. While I would be excited to order delivery products from Amazon, I’m not as interested in ordering delivery pizza. Drone delivery could truly cross into every industry. The U.S. Inspector General’s office did a report on public perception of drone delivery and found that 75% of Americans expect to have drone delivery by 2021, while 56% believe drone delivery will be faster and 53% believe deliveries made by drones would be environmentally friendly. Lastly, as the middle generations get older, we will have more elder people comfortable using new technologies. The ability to delivery necessary medicine to those who can’t leave their house could be very important as well.

For entertainment purposes I’m extremely excited about the ability to create interactive drone light shows. This may sound ridiculous, but I think I may be somewhat over fireworks. In addition to having seen them for what seems like my entire life, the nature conscious person in me recognizes the effects fireworks have on our environment. In China, experts have found a solution by using drones to perform elaborate light shows. Not only do the drones have less of an effect on the ozone, they also put on awesome light displays. I hope that this technology and trend becomes mainstream in the United States in the next few years as I think it would be very successful, as long as the FAA and federal government don’t outlaw it. I will admit, the idea of 1000 drones flying above is somewhat terrifying. This entertainment is already being used in smaller numbers in the U.S., as you can see below at a recent drone light show during CES at the Bellagio in Las Vegas earlier in 2018.

Using a drone was an eye-opening and fun experience. Despite my failure during testing, I would still support others buying drones to use for personal, educational, or professional use. Training and equipment are key, so certainly invest in the necessary items to prove successful so your investment and fun gadget doesn’t end up damaged or in a pool.

 

Powerpoint Presentation: https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1Iq31Gr17-st9mtyhZmqqPf3DxNp_dUSjYGcLKBr8h64/edit?usp=sharing

Resources

FAA overview of Unmanned Aerial Systems or Drones: https://www.faa.gov/data_research/aviation/aerospace_forecasts/media/Unmanned_Aircraft_Systems.pdf

Drone infirmary picture: https://www.makeuseof.com/tag/5-amazing-uses-drones-future/

10 Drone Facts That Will Blow You Away: https://www.fool.com/investing/2018/01/19/10-drone-stats-that-will-blow-you-away.aspx

Office of Inspector General: Public Perception of Drone Delivery in the United States https://www.uspsoig.gov/sites/default/files/document-library-files/2016/RARC_WP-17-001.pdf

Picture of a reporter using a drone from http://dutchnewsdesign.com

Darts image from BizEd

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