UND nationwide survey: Americans support high-value uses of drones

Despite some worries, public supports using drones, especially for high-value activities such as search-and-rescue and inspecting bridges

A nationwide survey by the Institute of Policy and Business Analytics at the University of North Dakota showed there’s a willingness among the public to balance concerns about privacy and safety with the potential benefits of unmanned systems, according to a cross-disciplinary team of UND researchers. UND archival photo.

Ask Americans what they think of drones, and they’re likely to express concern about privacy and safety, studies suggest. That’s understandable, given the notion that large numbers of small,

Robert “Bo” Wood

camera-equipped quadcopters may be darting overhead before long, landing on lawns and delivering pizzas and packages to people’s doors.

But when asked about specific uses of drones, Americans tend to be much more accepting, a first-of-its-kind, in-depth national survey of attitudes toward drones has found.

The survey by the Institute of Policy and Business Analytics at the University of North Dakota showed “there’s a real willingness to balance concerns about privacy and safety with the potential benefits of unmanned systems,” said Robert “Bo” Wood, professor of political science at UND and the survey’s lead investigator.

“That’s encouraging, because while public opinion toward UAS isn’t something that people often think or talk about, it’s an absolutely vital piece.” A supportive public means the UAS industry will be much more likely reach its full potential, while a skeptical or unsupportive public could greatly restrict the industry’s growth, Wood said.

At UND, Wood is the policy lead for the Research Institute for Autonomous Systems and chairs the University’s Committee for the Strategic Enhancement of Autonomous Systems Research; both organizations play leading roles in keeping UND at the forefront of developing and improving autonomous systems. Within those roles, Wood researched the existing literature on the topic of attitudes toward drones, developed the new survey’s methodology, supervised the data collection and is writing the analytical reports.

Online survey

The IPBA conducted its nationwide survey in November and December. With the help of Cloud Research, a leading platform for online surveys and research, a total sample of 4,500 completed online responses were gathered, including 500 from each of nine regions in the United States.

The results, according to the survey’s Executive Summary as written by Wood, “tend to paint a picture of a citizenry that is skeptical and/or cautious about the development of UAS technologies.” For example, 89 percent of respondents said they were worried about the improper use of UAS by governments, private companies, or both.

But when asked about specific activities, “the picture becomes quite different,” the Executive Summary continues.

The survey asked participants to weigh the risks and benefits of UAS in five broad categories:  surveying and inspection, research, monitoring and surveillance, delivery, and filming and broadcasting.

Results in each category

According to the Executive Summary:

  • Surveying and inspection: When asked about using drones to survey construction sites or inspect bridges, dams, power lines and the like, the public’s attitudes “are all quite heavily skewed toward benefits.”

On a scale from 0 to 10, with 0 representing “risks far outweigh the benefits” and 10 “the benefits far outweigh the risks,” the inspection of bridges, dams, highways and rail systems “received the highest scores, with a mean of 7.56 and over 1,400 scores of 10.”

Furthermore, “every activity in this category was clearly viewed as worth the risks, and the combined mean for the category was 7.07.”

  • Research: “As with previous categories, the responses heavily skew toward benefits outweighing costs, with the highest ratings going to the exploration of space (mean 7.07) and volcanoes (mean 7.01).

“The combined mean for this category is 6.94, making it the second most highly rated category after surveying and inspection.”

  • Monitoring and surveillance: These activities “are among the most controversial uses of UAS. … Yet again, the top-line results show a favorable assessment of the benefits vs risks.

“The highest-rated activity was assisting with search-and-rescue operations, with a mean of 7.68 and nearly 1,600 responses indicating 10. More controversial applications, such as traffic enforcement (mean 6.16) and monitoring persons suspected of criminal activity (mean 6.57) were lower, but still well above midpoint.”

Taken together, “this category (combined mean 6.90) appears to contradict much of the established literature regarding the privacy concerns of citizens, and merits further investigation.”

  • Delivery: “Again, the distribution is skewed toward benefits outweighing risks for every activity.” In fact, when respondents were asked to balance the risks vs. benefits of delivering – via drone life rings to drowning victims, the result was the most highly scored activity of the entire survey, with a mean of 7.92 and more than 1,800 scores of 10.

The lowest scoring activity in this category is “transporting human passengers,” with a mean of 5.09. Meanwhile, the combined mean for the category (which also includes “package delivery to residential addresses,” “delivering food” and “delivery of pesticides and fertilizer to agricultural crops”) is 6.59.

  • Filming and broadcasting: Of the eight activities – including reporting traffic updates, live coverage of events by news organizations and personal recordings with family and friends – associated with filming and broadcasting, “the most common rank was 5, meaning that benefits and risks were perceived as equal.”

The combined mean for this category was 6.01.

Open-minded public

Mark Askelson

Mark Askelson directs UND’s Research Institute for Autonomous Systems and is a member of the University’s Committee for the Strategic Enhancement of Autonomous Systems Research. “As the survey suggests, we’ve got this mix in public opinion nationwide,” Askelson said.

“There’s an overall concern about privacy and safety – and that’s a good thing. We should always be concerned when new technologies come along, to make sure they’ll be used in ways that minimize any negative impacts and maximize the benefits.”

But along with that, the public clearly senses the upside potential of a broad range of UAS activities, he said. Moreover, they’re not lumping together all of those activities. They’re seeing the difference between, say, delivering a life preserver to a person in the water, and delivering a pizza to a home. And they’re weighing the risks-and-benefits accordingly, Askelson said.

All of this is encouraging because it shows a public that’s engaged with UAS, excited about the technology and willing to see the industry grow, once the scale in each activity tips toward benefits. That means planners should address safety and privacy concerns across the board, Askelson said.

“At the end of the day, for companies and institutions that are hoping to use these systems, this survey shows they’ll need coherent policies about how they’ll ensure safe operations while protecting people’s privacy,” he said.

“That’s the big thing, for lawmakers, executives and other leaders: you’ve got to understand what the sensitivities are, and you’ve got to have policies to address them.”

UND leads the way

Jason Jensen

UND is actively helping to craft those policies, and the survey is one part of that service, said Jason Jensen, political science professor and executive director of UND’s Institute of Policy and Business Analytics.

“At UND, we and the state of North Dakota are actively striving to be No. 1 in unmanned aircraft systems,” Jensen said.

“There are several pillars supporting UAS, and one of them is policy. That includes public opinion, because if people aren’t comfortable with a technology, then that technology won’t move forward.”

With that in mind, this first-ever national survey on attitudes toward UAS provides not only a snapshot of those attitudes, but also a baseline from which the opinions can be tracked.

“This is the first in a series of surveys for us, as part of UND’s efforts to stay at the forefront of this industry,” Jensen said.

“We want to keep tabs on how opinions are changing. And as people become more familiar with UAS and as new policies come into place, we’ll be able to track both how and why those public-opinion changes are taking place.”

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