Public attitudes toward new emerging technologies importantly affect the eventual success of those new technologies by affecting development, policy, uptake, and use (Page & Shapiro, 1983; Stilgoe, Owen, & Macnaghten, 2013). As exemplified by the case of genetically modified foods in Europe (Gaskell, Bauer, Durant, & Allum, 1999), politically polarized public attitudes can create unique obstacles to technology uptake. For this reason, it is important to monitor public, especially political, attitudes toward new technologies.
Overall, understanding of public attitudes toward UATs is still in its infancy. Recent polls suggest the U.S. public continues to support the use of drones for military purposes but is not favorable toward every day commercial uses. Consistent with recent polling trends, prior research most commonly has examined public attitudes toward military uses (Kreps, 2014; McCauley, 2013; Walsh, 2015). Less research has focused on other purposes such as use for law enforcement (Eyerman et al., 2013), cargo and passenger delivery (MacSween-George, 2003c), and other applications (Reddy & DeLaurentis, 2016). Experimental studies have examined the impacts of persuasion on acceptance of UAT for cargo transport and commercial purposes (MacSween-George, 2003a, 2003e), and the impacts of laws and instrumental versus moral concerns on support for military uses (Kreps, 2014; Kreps & Wallace, 2014).
Supported through the NSF-funded CLOUD-MAP project, the current study used mixed methods –including surveys and focus groups—to gain insight into public opinions about UATs, and the bases of and factors affecting those opinions. During the survey, participants (N = 159) from across the United States reported their general impressions and feelings toward drones, and then responded to scenarios varying the purposes and contexts of drone use. Purposes included use of drones for meteorological, commercial, agricultural, and other uses. Survey respondents indicated their approval and support for such drone uses, and reported the strength of their attitudes and underlying concerns. A subset of the survey participants (n = 30) were then engaged in 90 minute focus groups, each comprised of 3 to 6 members, to discuss scenarios in greater depth. Focus participants were asked to discuss their specific hopes, concerns, and recommendations relating to the specific scenarios, and experts (project members working on drone technologies for meteorological purposes) were available to answer any questions that arose, as well as to probe for clarification as participants discussed their impressions and opinions.
Qualitative and quantitative analyses supported a number of findings from our mixed methods study, with potential implications for policy. For example, participant hopes, concerns, and support for drones varied significantly according to purposes. People were generally more favorable toward scientific (e.g., meteorological) uses of drones than toward commercial (e.g., package delivery) uses. When favorable toward certain purposes, people tended to also suggest fewer regulations and concerns. Concerns relating to privacy and uncertainty about purposes of drones appeared to lead to recommendations for means of public identification of drones, their users, and their purposes, as well as recommendations for regulation of users of drones, and required training. Finally, while safety was a common theme discussed during the focus groups, it was discussed both in terms of drones providing safety risks (e.g., malfunctions, crashes) and benefits (e.g., lowered pilot risks). These and other results will be presented at the conference along with discussion of the potential implications these results may have for policies that increase public acceptance of UATs.
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MacSween-George, S. L. (2003e). Will the public accept UAVs for cargo and passenger transportation? Paper presented at the Aerospace Conference, 2003. Proceedings. 2003 IEEE. http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/stamp/stamp.jsp?tp=&arnumber=1235066
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Reddy, L. B., & DeLaurentis, D. (2016). Opinion Survey to Reduce Uncertainty in Public and Stakeholder Perception of Unmanned Aircraft. Transportation Research Record, 2600, 80-93. doi: doi:10.3141/2600-09. Retrieved from http://trrjournalonline.trb.org/doi/abs/10.3141/2600-09
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