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What is aerial and satellite imagery?

Hail season in North Texas has started and I'm meeting more and more insurance adjusters using aerial and satellite imagery for roof claims. So I thought I would share this information for those not familiar with it. So, what is aerial or satellite imagery?

When we think of images taken from the sky, there are two types. There is aerial and satellite. Aerial imagery is just photos taken by low flying airplanes (e.g. single engine planes) and the other is taken from satellites in space. The best images are usually those from airplanes. Often major cities and suburbs are photographed by aerial imagery. Satellite images are often used for more rural locations where perhaps it is not as cost effective to fly planes overhead.

From these overhead images of a roof, various roof measurements and other information can be determined. In the past decade we've seen start ups dedicated to creating and delivering this technology as a service to different entities. Insurers, roofers, local governments, etc. use this technology. I once heard a story about a county government that used it to find additional swimming pools to add to their property tax rolls. Commercial insurance companies use it to help take key measurements on large commercial buildings for underwriting purposes. And, insurance companies use it for measuring residential roofs on hail or wind claims.

One of the first questions I often hear is, "Is it accurate"? The marketing claim from aerial imagery companies over the last several years reports it is very accurate. I will say that its 'accurate enough' that many insurers are using it to settle their losses, requesting re-inspections based on it, and more.

It's not perfect though. Years ago I led research into aerial imagery as part of an industry presentation I delivered. There are pros and cons with it and every adjuster or roofer using it should be aware of its limitations. Overall, I like the technology. But it's just a tool and anyone using it needs to remember that.

The pros: It can save time measuring, especially on those steep and cut up roofs. Old school guys like me were classically trained to measure by hand every type of roof, including steep and cut up. I was well known as an adjuster who could climb and measure any roof. I was proud of it too. However, on complex roofs that take me 30 minutes to diagram and measure, aerial imagery would give me measurements instantly. It also saves me time on sketching the roof diagram into my estimating software as these companies provide a diagram which plugs into our software.

But honestly, on regular houses I don't know if its worth the cost of aerial imagery which can be cheaper for insurers (buying volume) and more for independent adjusters and roofers.

Another 'pro' marketing claim is adjusters and roofers don't have to climb all over the roof obtaining measurements. So, they say it's safer. The problem with that logic is its not always a given conclusion. Often you have to look at the entire roof to find damage, particularly on hail which isn't that large. As much as we hope the damage is visible near where we set a ladder up against a roof, its never always that simple.

The cons: Aerial or satellite imagery cannot see everything. It cannot see multiple layers of shingles. Some roofs have 2 to 3 layers so adjusters and roofers have to note this. It cannot see well under heavy trees so roofing area hidden under trees may not appear in the measurements. Aerial or satellite cannot see felt, ice shields, or drip edge on the roof. It cannot see holes in decking from really big hail. It cannot distinguish the type of shingle on the roof either or high profile ridge. Furthermore, these images might be several months old so recent changes may not be included. The important footnote here is this technology is simply a measuring tool.

I'm old school and so I still measure most all roofs by hand. The older I get the more adjusters and roofers (salespersons) I see that don't measure by hand. They don't know how, don't want to spend the time, or don't have the time. Either way, measuring roofs by hand is becoming a lost art.

I would even suggest that if you have a simple roof and someone is getting their measurements from aerial or satellite, that might be a red flag. Simple roofs don't take that long to diagram and measure, so skilled adjusters and roofers should be able to get the data by hand. The question is can they?

The adjuster might have a good reason for using the technology. Often their company has mandated its use so they never learned how to manually measure a roof. But, a roofer (salesperson) using it on a simple roof would trigger questions. The roofer needs to assess the entire roof and components so why not take measurements while there? Personally, I believe its a skill that needs to be demonstrated during the inspection.

I have found that those (adjusters and roofers) who take shortcuts end up making the most mistakes. That's a big reason why I don't like shortcuts and I especially don't like making mistakes.

If an adjuster ever comes out to look at your roof, ask if they are using aerial or satellite imagery. It will lead to an interesting conversation..

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