Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are some pretty amazing technology, allowing the military to send combat aircraft into battle without endagnering their pilots, giving law enforcement agencies the ability to survey areas from the air for longer periods of time, and giving civilian enthusiasts the ability capture some pretty terrific video footage from the air. Insurers have put this particular application to use as a way to view damaged rooftops and assess damage without putting a claims adjuster at risk of falling. And hobbyists have used drones with mounted GoPro cameras to capture some marvelous footage, such as flying right into the heart of an Independence Day fireworks display.

The thing is, not everybody is thrilled with drones. In fact, most people are freaked out by them, according to a study conducted for the Chubb Group of Insurance Companies. The Chubb survey noted that while Americans are curious about how drones can and might be used, that curiosity is giving way to serious misgivings about new dangers private drones might present. 

“As drones continue to be developed and deployed, we expect that an increasing number of our customers will face some of the risks of this emerging technology,” said Christie Alderman, vice president of Chubb Personal Insurance. “Fortunately, if a drone were to damage or cause other loss to your property, there may be coverage under the dwelling or contents portion of your homeowners insurance policy.”

That’s good news, since nearly three-fourths of the 1,000 people surveyed for Chubb said they were concerned that drones could damage property if flown into a house. Some fifty-five percent of people said they were concerned that drones could hurt people by hitting them and taking out an eye or cutting a finger.

If either of those concerns seem far-fetched to you, they’re not. The video below shows what can happen when a drone suffers a malfunction and becomes impossible to steer correctly. In this case, what was supposed to be a short flight to examine a nearby rooftop turned into an out-of-control crash through the window of a nearby law office that resulted in one of its occupants sustaining an injury bad enough to require several stitches. The associated costs with that particular crash will not be cheap for the drone’s operator.  

The biggest concern, however, was the use of drones as flying cameras, which is really how most civilians intend to use them. There is something very cool and very useful about being able to put a robust video camera high in the sky. But that also means creeps can look at people, places and things they should not be looking at. The Chubb survey noted that 78% of people thought drones could turn America into a surveillance state, and that drones might capture photos of family members (60%), or be used to hack into wireless networks (50%). More than a third of people (34%) feared droned could be used to steal their possessions.

The video below speaks to the Peeping Tom risk. Here, a pilot flew his drone over a beach in Oahu, Hawaii, and judging from the video, it looks like he was just trying to get some video of the surfline. However, he overflew one man who was sunbathing in the nude, and when the drone overflew the guy a second time, the irate sunbather hurled both of his sandals at the drone, nearly knocking it out of the sky. As you’ll see, the sunbather hectors the pilot over an invasion of privacy, only to learn that surprise! Nude sunbathing is illegal in Oahu.

Nearly fifth of respondents (21%) said they would be interested in buying a drone (they do look like an awful lot of fun to fly around), but 67% said that private citizens should not be allowed to operate a drone at all, not even if they had a permit for one. Only a handful of respondents – less than 10%  - felt comfortable seeing a drone being piloted by a child.
Interestingly, 64% said they did not want to see businesses using drones, either. Amazon is already looking into how to use the technology to make small doorstep deliveries directly, and it’s only a matter of time before somebody uses this tech to get a pizza to you in under 30 minutes without having to tip the driver. (I’m sure the pilots would appreciate a little something for their efforts, though.)

The original purpose for drones – military use – remained, by far, the use most people felt comfortable with Some 86% of respondents supported military use of drones, even though armed drones have a pretty nasty record of causing collateral damage (a.k.a. killing innocent people) when they take out a bad guy. Respondents also felt comfortable with law enforcement use of drones, although with the recent unrest in Ferguson, one can imagine that the public wouldn’t be  that comfortable with police drones.

The Chubb survey’s respondents also supported the use of drones for the delivery of emergency medical aid and other humanitarian uses. Drones are already being put to those purposes already, with small winged craft being used to provide high-resolution mapping of Haiti in an effort to identify and mitigate flood risk, and to deliver much-needed medical aid to parts of the world that simply don’t have the ground infrastructure in place to allow for fast, reliable delivery of essential goods from the outside.

When it is all said and done, the introduction of cheap, mass produced drones is a big game-changer in the fields of defense, law enforcement, retail, medicine, risk management, and even insurance. Like any emerging technology, we haven’t yet fully figured out if the positives ultimately outweigh the negatives. That is the exciting phase of seeing a new technology take hold. Drone technology could do for logistics and transportation what mobile telephones have done for communications.

But this is also the scary phase. We just don’t know how often drones will be used recklessly or for illicit purposes, or what the range of hazards might be. But one thing remains clear: whatever path we choose, it will be the insurability of drones, and the willingness of insurers to use such technology, that determines a large part of this technology’s destiny.