In The Public Eye: How Drones Help the Florida School Board Insurance Trust (FSBIT) Manage Risk
By Alliant Specialty
The Florida School Board Insurance Trust (FSBIT) turned to drone technologies to help survey their school district properties, which span 12 counties. Eric Seaborg and James Woodside, Alliant Public Entity, spoke with one of the founders of the program, Jill Thompson, Information Director, FSBIT to learn how the groundbreaking program got started. In addition, discuss how their use of drone technologies has improved their ability to survey properties in significantly less time and reduce the risk of accessing difficult-to-reach areas.
Welcome to the Alliant In The Public Eye Podcast, a show dedicated to exploring risk management topics and challenges faced by today's public sector leaders. Here's today's host Eric Seaborg.
Eric Seaborg (00:19):
Hi everyone. I'm your host, Eric Seaborg from the Alliant public entity education and pooling team. And today our topic will be focused on the drone program at the Florida School Board Insurance Trust Group, or FSBIT for short, this is an innovative program founded and operated by just two individuals who work for FSBIT. And we are four to have one of those individuals on the show today. Jill Thompson, Jill. Welcome.
Jill Thompson (00:46):
Thank you so much for having me.
Eric Seaborg (00:48):
Jill's the information director for FSBIT and her drone program was actually brought to my attention by my colleague from the Alliant public entity education and pulling team. Mr. James Woodside, James works with public school systems concentrated in the Southeastern United States, and I'm happy to have him co-hosting with me today, James, I appreciate you joining me and bringing Jill to the program. And if you wouldn't mind, give us a little background on your connection with Jill.
James Woodside (01:16):
Thank you so much, Eric. I'm pleased to be here with Jill today. We have had a relationship with, FSBIT since 2006, and I've been working with Jill for six years. The Florida School Board's Insurance Trust has a very innovative program, a very progressive program in advancing technology toward drones. And we’re very interested to hear about it today.
Jill Thompson (01:40):
Thank you, James. I’m the director of information services at FSBIT. I have 25 years of it experience behind me as well, which I think has helped a lot in part of the program. So I hope to help close the gap for some folks that may be thinking about doing a homegrown variety for themself and their business.
Eric Seaborg (01:56):
If you don't mind, Jill, take us back to the beginning of the program at FSBIT and tell us about how this concept got off the ground.
Jill Thompson (02:04):
Sure. So our executive director, David Stevens came to us one day and said we're going to fly drones. And to be honest, he left the room and we looked at each other and just shook our heads fast forward a year. We had one of us certified and actually could afford one of the models. So we made a purchase and it has snowballed from there.
Eric Seaborg (02:25):
And it seems regulations and standards have really evolved over the years. So therefore I'm curious about the training you need to be a licensed pilot.
Jill Thompson (02:34):
Sure. In the very beginning, which we're approaching four years ago, we had to take the general aviation administration pilot's license, but they have significantly enhanced that test since then. So, while still viable and very much in line with the FAA pilot license, it's more drone central and it is how you interact with the folks at the control towers and different airports throughout the area. And in our case, military interaction has been a heavy presence in some of our counties.
Eric Seaborg (03:05):
Sounds to me like a driver's test. Is there a written part, and a demonstration of skills part to earn a license, to fly drones?
Jill Thompson (03:13):
In the beginning, it did not require that, but now it does. You have to have so many flight hours of actual drone flight hours. But in the beginning, it was very rigorous, I think it was like 180 to a hundred question tests and it all centralized around AGL and types of specifications for air traffic control and those kind of related guidelines.
Eric Seaborg (03:34):
So I'm curious, what's the cost for something like that?
Jill Thompson (03:37):
It's actually pretty economical. It was about 160 a pilot. And now the FAA has, because there's a deficit in pilots offered the free re re-certification. So, it's probably significantly less, more like $25 for a first-time pilot.
Eric Seaborg (03:50):
Is there a minimum age before you can apply to test for your license to pilot drones?
Jill Thompson (03:56):
I want to say it was 13 depending on the type of aircraft, but I think it is 16 for the larger models, but don't quote me, there might be a better reference there and that may have changed as I joked to my daughter at the time that she could go ahead and take it with me but yes, it is lower than I would've thought
Eric Seaborg (04:14):
Working with your colleague Richard, on this program, what was one of your first that you set out to accomplish, utilizing a drone?
Jill Thompson (04:24):
You know, took us a substantial amount of time to survey a property. So, in the beginning had to fly everything manually, which required us to look through the eyes of the drone and judge where to take photos and hope that we got enough of the coverage through that camera. That was not actually in our hands to knit it all together and do a composite, which was at the time kind of a fledgling product by one of the companies we used for the software part of it. We quickly realized three hours of school was not going to get us anywhere. We just kept trying to get more efficient or scope it out and low and behold Drone Deploy, who is the software company we use gave us the ability to map things out ahead of time. So, we were able to take what took three hours and take it down to 45 minutes. We would build in for battery changes or wind factors. If it's very windy out there, we use more batteries. It takes longer, but that made our schedules doable. We could do six to eight schools a day and we had over 330 sites we needed to survey throughout Florida. It took us the good part of a year to get it all done, to schedule and then come back and do our real jobs during the interim, but we were able to get that with that enhancement in the technology.
Eric Seaborg (05:35):
James, let me turn to you for a second. Can you give our listeners an understanding as to the size of the Florida School Board Insurance Trust?
James Woodside (05:44):
We have 12 county school districts in the Florida School Board's Insurance Trust, which is a pooling program of school districts in the state of Florida. The values are over 6.6 billion dollars. So Eric, the schedule is very extensive and ranges from Okeechobee county all the way over to Santa Rosa county in Florida.
Eric Seaborg (06:06):
So Jill, what were the startup costs associated with this program?
Jill Thompson (06:10):
We initially purchased the Phantom. It was $6,000. Not long before that, maybe two years before that it was, is over $10,000. So you can just see the advancement in that field nowadays, you can probably get it for much less, but it is still a very great, reliable, heavy duty drone. And in our case, we have coastal properties to the wind is a big factor. We do have as backup the smaller two pound or less Mavic Air series that we use when we're away from the coast, but that does take longer, more batteries, but the cost and the ROI on that is very good. So, we can look at getting a thousand dollars drone with batteries as a supplement. So, we could be out flying at the same time in the same county.
Eric Seaborg (06:55):
What's the longevity of one of the drones in a situation like yours. How much usage do you expect to get from your flowing technology?
Jill Thompson (07:05):
We've been lucky. We did have insurance on the first Phantom and we had to employ that at one point because it had some anomalies with its gimble system, which is what keeps it balanced and keeps it centered and takes good pictures. So, we were able to trade that in right before the deadline and get that replaced. But if we'd had to outlay another five, 6,000, that's half our budget for the year for that. So it's a big deal for us. If I had to guess they're more like a laptop expectancy. We have added a few of the newer small models just to supplement and see how long that can go and then we'll retire the other ones. We did add another Inspire though, because we added a thermal camera to the mix and that was a $10,000 one time outlay with batteries and different things. Of course, batteries are more expensive on the bigger drone. It can carry up to a 50 pound load maximum. That camera does not weigh that much, but we had to have something with better options. The drone itself was about $2000 of it. The camera is $8,000. So to us, that was a big deal to lose an $8,000 camera. We needed it to be on something much more stable.
Eric Seaborg (08:13):
So beyond the hardware to run the drone program, what else would be associated costs?
Jill Thompson (08:20):
Our software costs have gone from a little over a hundred dollars a month to $400 a month because we use now the thermal and the added features. We aren't limited to number of pictures. We quickly outgrew that first model, but it was nice that we could grow it from that first one. It took us a long time to really get the amount of pictures of push the ceiling on that first package. So, we didn't waste a lot of the district money because we are nonprofit. We're not trying to spend money out here.
James Woodside (08:48):
Jill, that must take up a lot of storage space to store all of those pictures.
Jill Thompson (08:53):
We have been lucky enough to find some really good online providers. We found Vimeo to be our best solution. We can get away with $250 a year. Now we do have thresholds of viewing, but they do not penalize you for storage. So that's been helpful for us. Plus we use a files.com. They've been really helpful on storage, of the imagery and us being able to disseminate that quickly to the schools. They have a number of safety officers and law enforcement SRO type personnel that also have needed access to that. And we're able to secure it in the same place. So, we're not having to move things to different providers like we were in the beginning.
Eric Seaborg (09:30):
We all know that drone technologies being widely utilized when the variety of industries as a very cost effective tool. And this seems like a real big interest to insurance underwriters. So, tell us Jill about the benefits you and Richard are finding by operating drones.
Jill Thompson (09:48):
We had heard about one of our counties and the endless dealings they had with FEMA in getting, a large settlement squared away. It was a number of years before I came aboard and still had paperwork on FEMA's desk two years ago that I know of that was not processed. When you have that geo-tagged image of here, it was this day, it was in this type of condition. It can offer confidence to our carriers that the schools are doing their diligence and keeping the maintenance up on the buildings keeping them in good repair. We've been able to offer images to folks that are standing water on groups that they wouldn't normally have folks just walking about up there. And that in itself would be a hazard or a risk. I saw OSHA’s annual production and they say it was over 5 billion in losses for people just falling off ladders. Imagine if we could replace half of that with that type of imagery if they needed something surveyed quickly, we can be there quickly and get up there and not have folks on ladders, folks on roofs. And they could make assessments from the ground.
Eric Seaborg (10:47):
And the cost savings with this type of technology is really incredible. Wouldn't you say?
Jill Thompson (10:53):
One of our schools districts was paying $2,500 a flight to have a helicopter take off and just provide them with four shots of every school that had to happen over three and four days. That was quickly $10,000. We said, I think this could replace that. They said, oh no, it can't. And we were able to send them not only the four but much more. And then of course in depth. And it's just the one time outlay that we share are amongst our pool, employ it in the right places and find out where some cost saving can happen.
James Woodside (11:23):
Jill, we had a recent fire loss at one of our districts. Can you tell us how the post loss video cameras played into that loss?
Jill Thompson (11:31):
We actually did not survey that one. There was a loss at the Abraham Lincoln School over in Alachua county, where they had lost during a windstorm, a portion of their roof to the gymnasium. And it's a real high gymnasium. And unfortunately the way the line items were listed, it looked like the AC units were on top of that route and they did not want to get up there. And they were able to determine that they were not up there. So that made a difference in the estimation for their loss. And they got the records corrected to.
Eric Seaborg (12:02):
From day one, you face challenges to get the program up and running. So, if our listeners are considering a drone program, what are the obstacles that you envision they may face beyond the bureaucratic and funding roadblock.
Jill Thompson (12:16):
Some of the things we found out very quickly being in the field was the importance of planning. There are maps that can tell you in our case, what military zones you might be flying in, who you might need to request authorization from. And there are unspoken 50 foot extensions and surprise extension of those when they were doing exercises that we did not find out until we landed. And how we found out is they were able to freeze our drone midair. And in some cases not even allow takeoff. So, if you don't have all your homework done ahead of time and know all the agencies and have their numbers in hand, it can be time consuming. You can and lose an entire day. If you're not allowed or permitted in that area.
Eric Seaborg (12:58):
When you say they freeze the drone, what does that actually mean? Are they stopping them in midair and they can't go any further or do they somehow stop the motor causing them to fall?
Jill Thompson (13:10):
Absolutely stop them right there midair. They will freeze it at 200 feet in the air to 400, whatever they please if you should do something they don't like there is an override feature in, I think all drones now it's called sport mode. But the only thing it'll let you do is come straight down and only if you're standing directly under it. So, it's just important to know all the rules and really know what you're getting into in an area that has a lot of cross coverage like that.
Eric Seaborg (13:38):
Tell us a little bit more about the equipment, the assorted supplies you might need, especially when you're out there in the field.
Jill Thompson (13:45):
We quickly realized two or three extra batteries is not enough. And if you're going to fly six to eight flights a day, you are also recharging those batteries from one destination to another. The smaller drone has eight backup batteries, and you have to let them cool for a time and then let them charge. We also found that does like to oversubscribe your plugin power supply. So, it's best to have a generator or something that does not rely on vehicle power, just because you don't want to now strand yourself in the middle of somewhere in case you were to blow a fuse on the vehicle, which we did. SD cards, different things will fail. Wi-Fi will often not always be the same. So, having a few options there can help you, especially in areas new to you. They have a number of fancy cases they like to sell you with these models, but really the less insured that case is, if you can find a way to keep it immobile and just go from one to the next, you can cut your time down by more than a half hour, just not having to unpack orders to fold up and take apart the drone between each flight.
James Woodside (14:49):
Can you tell us how large these drones are physically? I remember you brought one into a meeting and it was very impressive.
Jill Thompson (14:57):
They have a lot of long distance ones out now probably are more like a 30, 40 pound, a very large wingspan. It's got a better propellers can go faster. It can do a lot of things. Hold more as well.
Eric Seaborg (15:10):
By way this a two person job, or can you get away with doing this solo?
Jill Thompson (15:15):
You can do solo. We did. In many cases we would not have been able to do it. It is recommended though, to have a second set of eyes besides the remote pilot and command. But most of our sites are line of sight. We can see the whole property. So it's within the guidelines to just have one.
Eric Seaborg (15:31):
So does your software come with any type of flight planning like they have with regular pilots?
Jill Thompson (15:37):
The pre-planned flight schedule was huge. Being able to just have all our points mapped out before we got there. You can literally hit the ground running.
Eric Seaborg (15:45):
James let's turn to the broker side of this and have you weigh in on how the carriers are perceiving FSBIT’s drone program. I imagine they are on board with this type of technology.
James Woodside (15:56):
Eric. Absolutely. We have been to our property underwriters. We have multiple underwriters on this program and last year, Jill prepared a presentation, which was very impressive to the underwriters. And the underwriters view of this drone program is that, wow, this is an amazing program. And how proactive is FSBIT? What else can they do?
Eric Seaborg (16:20):
And Jill, I can imagine the word is spreading about your program. So, I wonder are other school districts reaching out to you because they want to start a program?
Jill Thompson (16:28):
Yes, we’ve had quite a number of inquiries and we've helped them put together timelines as far as growing out and budget expenditures. And really just our advice is to start small, but also know that you do need to have an IT factor as part of it.
James Woodside (16:45):
Can you tell us a little bit about what it would look like if a vendor provided these drone services and what to difficulties they might have in coordinating with a pool staff.
Jill Thompson (16:57):
You could outsource the actual flight and an imagery part of it and take those in really the post-processing is going to be a big factor. You need to have someone that can either present it as a website or present it easily to the members because dumping it in the hands of the school districts may or may not be what they want and or need. They then now have a pile of pictures that they have to go through. And it's probably the equivalent of all those photo mat doubles that we got back in the day. Now somebody has to look at all this and decide what's good, but I don't know that you could get a contractor to fly on your time, in partnering with some of the drone deploy meetups, 70% are homegrown. They just cannot find out what they need to fit their business needs.
So that, that is definitely true in our case. And I'm not quite sure that it would be affordable to just contract out a fancy photographer. Not only because of our sites being sensitive, we also had to become LT certified to be on campus. See you pay for that. You start to go out, you need folks that can have clearance. We generate a lot of interest when we're on the ground. It’s noisy at worst. It's annoying at best. We always have folks walking up to us. So, being prepared for that and actually being part of the school district helps and our case. We're an extension of them. These are students, this is sensitive data, and that's where a lot of our concerns come from. So, we're very conscious of that sensitivity and try to work with them
Eric Seaborg (18:23):
FSBIT has got to be a huge area. So how long did it take you first time around the really fly and survey everything.
Jill Thompson (18:31):
So about 70 full days and, and that would be flying seven to eight sites a day on an aggressive schedule. It could easily stretch out due to weather. We try to coordinate as best we can with mother nature, but that doesn't always work out, especially on the coast.
Eric Seaborg (18:46):
After flying back on the ground. How about post-processing?
Jill Thompson (18:49):
Post-processing we actually look at more time. It's a lot longer now to post process. And that is you load up all the files. You wait for them to be available. We download them in a variety of formats. One that's so big, you can't open. And then one you is small enough, but yet detailed enough to put on their website and everything in between.
Eric Seaborg (19:10):
Yeah. What you've mentioned regarding the use of a drone, what else could they be used for?
Jill Thompson (19:15):
What we have found is law enforcement has a lot of interest in this product because they don't have maps, one can put their hands on them. What you hear about in a lot of tragedies is that they rely on someone in the office to tell them where the auditorium is, and that would put them in harm's way. If they had to end to a facility, not knowing where a shooter was, this way, anyone could exit the school and we would hopefully have something that they could use and keep themselves completely at a distance.
James Woodside (19:40):
I'm also curious to, to find out if you have to access a file or a video, how do you find it and how do you catalog it?
Jill Thompson (19:50):
We try to keep them all tagged per county and then we have them also tagged per school. So, we've got everything organized out there in our two repositories. As I mentioned that we have secured and password protected for our districts. So, we have those readily available on our website for them and, and they have their own passwords or they can call us at any time and we can make it available. That's what we were trying to further in respect to the SROs and give them an additional front end for each county with a different password so that they could disseminate it and we can change it as needed or compromise might have been found, but it's been fairly easy to just repurpose what we already had. And by a surprise, it's helped a lot. It helps me feel like we're doing something good. And like you said, bring back a lot of facets of things I haven't done in years, like web design and just post production videos in general, we put one together for the drones and it was funny. It's like riding a bike, all that stuff I learned in college came back and we got to use it for good instead of boring school projects for a change.
Eric Seaborg (20:58):
You mentioned earlier about flying and having to go into a joining neighborhoods. And for our listeners, who've never heard a drone in flight. They are quite noisy. So, have you ever encountered not so happy neighbors?
Jill Thompson (21:12):
Very often had a number of folks, parents and passer-byers come up in inquire. We have our FAA permits to fly and also emails with the risk manager. And then we have all our contact information readily available. Usually it just turns into a discussion like this. They're very excited about it and want to know more and know that it's only a property of the school and it won't be publicly disseminated and it's not being used for evil.
Eric Seaborg (21:35):
So, let's hear about what you may have on the horizon, as far as expanding the drone program at FSBIT.
Jill Thompson (21:41):
Really that the expansion for SRO and the overlays are our big project that we're working on now. But thermal has been huge and because Flur and the different technologies are now racing to keep up with demand, we find almost every couple of months, they have a new offering, which makes something that's really good, more affordable for us right now. One of the things we've started, it's called baseline in Drone Deploy. And that is when you go out there immediately upon completion, take a scan and do a side by side comparison. It's drastic the amount of change and the amount of soot or deposits that you'll see what that tells us we're not quite sure if that's just expected, or if that tells us there's a problem with the materials or anyway, it could be used for the multitude of, of purposes. We're just trying to get some information on what we can actually glam from those images. It's something we plan to do with all the new constructed groups. We've had some schools that have been interested for their technical colleges and they are offering drone certification already through that avenue, but we may reach out to them and just see if there's an interest in sharing our knowledge and then they can have their own district point person, so to speak. If they want to add it to the safety team.
James Woodside (22:54):
Jill, I understand this was a challenge to you and an unknown frontier. Can you tell us how this has enhanced your job satisfaction with FSBIT?
Jill Thompson (23:03):
Actually, initially I really did not think I was cut out to get out there. I had very little exposure, to drones. Richard had already had them for years. He knew a lot about them. So, then I even further felt out of place, but it allowed me to actually appreciate the volume of not only our property, but the conditions and being able to see how it could give them immediate rewards. Like in the case of Santa Rosa, being able to have at savings and not have to contract out for photos. All the other districts could not afford that, or just never had that done because that was a luxury item. And just in this day and age, they're looking for every dollar for everything else, but it really gave me a whole new appreciation for what James and everyone does. And just being able to see our site value as a whole.
It's just real easy to be in the weeds of the comp side or the incident side and technical aspects related to that. We deal with them on a quarterly basis for meetings, but I don't see the ground. I don't see the property part very much at all. So it put a face on all that, and it really helps. It helps knowing that we can put dollars right back into the hands of the schools. Every dollar we can keep them from spending and maybe even help them save is right back into the school classroom.
James Woodside (24:22):
Eric, we've had a number of situations where we’ve had problems that we needed IT to get involved. And my experience with Jill is that she has a very can do type of attitude and she is very rapid to respond and she can find the solutions and figure out the programs to give us a solution for our issues.
Eric Seaborg (24:44):
I think we could go one talking about this topic for hours seems the more we hear from Jill, the more we want to keep going, but I'm thinking we've given our listeners the basics for what a startup drone program is all about.
James Woodside (24:57):
I think we've about covered it, Eric.
Eric Seaborg (24:59):
Jill, this has been an incredible journey learning and understanding the benefits and challenges of what it takes to develop a successful drone program for a large school district. You have certainly put FSBIT on the map of innovative techniques to not only contain, but lower the cost of risk. And I'm sure you and Richard are very much appreciated by many on behalf of James and our listeners. A special thank you for taking the time to join us today.
Jill Thompson (25:29):
Thank you so much.
Eric Seaborg (25:31):
And James, I'm grateful for you bringing the FSBIT bit drone program to the podcast and the special talent of Jill Thompson.
James Woodside (25:38):
Eric Seaborg (25:39):
To all the listeners. Thank you for joining us because without you, this wouldn't be possible. Please be sure to go out there and make it a safe day.
Alliant note and disclaimer: This document is designed to provide general information and guidance. Please note that prior to implementation your legal counsel should review all details or policy information. Alliant Insurance Services does not provide legal advice or legal opinions. If a legal opinion is needed, please seek the services of your own legal advisor or ask Alliant Insurance Services for a referral. This document is provided on an “as is” basis without any warranty of any kind. Alliant Insurance Services disclaims any liability for any loss or damage from reliance on this document.
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