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Japan insurance firms embracing drones to assess damage claims, aid in disaster relief

Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Insurance Inc. chief technologist Yoshihito Takahashi is seen with a company drone in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward in this recent photo. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Nonlife insurance companies are adding a new tool to their damage evaluation repertoire that will give them a bird's-eye view of accidents and disasters: drones.

The firms' eyes in the sky are expected to help inspect the extent of damage and quickly determine appropriate payout amounts.

In mid-May this year, Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Insurance Inc. chief technologist Yoshihito Takahashi dispatched a company drone to assist in the search for a missing father and son in the mountains of Niigata Prefecture. The prefectural government has a disaster-prevention pact with Sompo Japan and requested the firm's help, and Takahashi had in fact given firefighters in the prefecture drone piloting training just the day before.

Nonlife insurance companies began introducing drones about three years ago, as they can make tight turns and are far cheaper to operate than helicopters or regular aircraft. Sompo Japan started flying the miniature machines in 2015 to assess traffic accident damage, and then expanded their use to ascertain the scale and impact of disasters.

The company is also moving ahead with partnerships with local governments in disaster prevention and response. Few other firms and organizations that operate drones have someone as experienced at the controls as Takahashi, so Sompo receives a lot of requests for help from local bodies that have signed disaster-prevention agreements with the company. Following the April 2016 Kumamoto Earthquake, Kumamoto Prefecture, too, asked for help to find students missing in the disaster.

The Sompo drone was in the air again after the massive fire in Itoigawa, Niigata Prefecture, in December the same year, and the torrential rain disaster in northern Kyushu in July 2017. These flights were used to assess damage and get insurance payments sent out to policyholders quickly, but some of the images taken by the drone were also provided to the local governments concerned to help them grasp the extent of the damage. Recently, Sompo has linked up with the Tokyo Fire Department to use the firm's drones to guide people during earthquake disaster evacuation drills in the capital's office tower districts.

Meanwhile, Tokio Marine & Nichido Fire Insurance Co. has teamed up with a U.S.-based tech startup to build an AI system paired with drones. The system would analyze the photos and video provided by the unmanned aircraft to calculate damage and estimate repair and recovery costs.

Though the technology is still in development, some firms have already contracted the project unit to have the drones collect visual data on factory buildings and storehouses. If the buildings are hit by an accident or disaster, the data should allow a damage assessment in as little as one to two days, as opposed to the several months it can take now.

"If things progress quickly, we would like to deploy this technology worldwide within the fiscal year," a Tokio Marine representative commented.

(Japanese original by Satoko Takeshita, Business News Department)

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