When developing and utilizing new technologies, it is important to take into account public and stakeholder input related to the technology design, regulation, and implementation (Stilgoe, et al., 2013). Further, decisions and public buy-in related to new technology are enhanced by understanding how individuals make sense of new technologies (e.g., Stocklmayer, Gore & Bryant, 2001; Hanson-Easey et al., 2015). Drone technology for atmospheric sciences can advance understanding of the atmosphere and improve weather prediction (e.g., Darack, 2012) but public and stakeholders’ perceptions of and hopes and concerns surrounding drone technologies need to be assessed. Thus, our multi-university study, funded by the National Science Foundation, set out to understand public and stakeholders’ perceptions of and hopes and concerns surrounding drone technologies. In this presentation we present results from just such an assessment executed via public national surveys and focus groups, and interviews of weather forecasters.
Data for this presentation come from three sources. First, a nationwide representative sample survey (N=2100) in which participants were asked to report their attitudes towards drones in general as well as in light of different purposes of use and locations of use. Second, telephone interviews and online focus groups conducted with weather forecasters (N=10) representing the Central and Southern National Weather Service regions in which forecasters were asked to discuss current data gaps for short-term forecasting, and to consider how drone technology might be used to fill those gaps. Third, eight public focus groups (N=30) in which participants were asked to discuss their hopes and concerns about drone technology used for a variety of purposes, and to provide input into policy and technology design that might address their concerns and facilitate their hopes.
Results from the national survey indicate that there was significantly greater support for drones used for weather purposes than each of the other purposes presented (prescribed fires, deliveries, or recording movies). Privacy, fairness, nuisance, and authority-related concerns tended to be endorsed to a greater extent when drones were used for movie-making and delivery, than when used for weather research or prescribed fires. Hopes related to technological advances and increasing efficiency were rated especially relevant to the use of drones for weather research. In addition, people generally were more supportive of use of drones in rural than urban areas. When drones were used in urban areas participants on average rated concerns about whether authority would be respected as relevant and indicated greater distrust of the technology in that context.
Weather forecaster data needs
National Weather Service (NWS) professionals were very supportive of the potential value of drones for filling gaps in data used for short-term forecasting. Twenty-four foci were identified as targets for data collection. Most foci would typically be categorized as exclusively “warm-season” (63%). Of these foci, 38% would require collection of temperature and/or humidity data, 24% would require collection of wind data, and 29% would require visual media (photos or videos). Nearly all phenomena (96%) required data collection below ~1000 m AGL and 50% required exclusively data collection below ~120 m. Half of the phenomena required operations best characterized as “surveying” (e.g., storm damage surveys and ice jam identification) with 42% requiring vertical profiling. Participants noted the importance of assimilating drone data into numerical weather prediction models but that the highest priority should be real-time (low-latency) availability of the data directly to the forecaster. In general, participants cautioned against tasking forecasters with drone operation but emphasized the importance of allowing forecasters to identify target areas/foci.
How policy makers and technologists should respond
In our public focus groups, we explored how members of the public felt policy makers and technologists should respond to their significant hopes and concerns. Consistent with the survey research, participants were hopeful about the new possibilities that drone technology offered for technological growth, advanced research, increased safety, and increased efficiency. However they also expressed concerns about privacy, safety, misuse, technological failures, and over-use of drones. Key advice for drone technologists were providing identifiable drones (by purpose) to ease purpose-driven concerns, avoiding the use of a camera to alleviate privacy concerns, and managing drone size, reliability, and location of use to address safety concerns. Key recommendations for policy makers included engaging in collaborative policy making, addressing privacy and identification concerns, and ensuring responsible air-traffic management.
Broadly, our study found that there are often competing concerns, such as the forecaster’s desire for a camera for visual representation of weather targets and the public’s concern for camera use. However, despite these differences, our study suggests that stakeholders and publics are supportive of drones for atmospheric research and weather forecasting purposes. Important to the development of this technology will be technological design factors that are responsive to the perspectives of both the public and the atmospheric scientists, collaborative policy-making, and clear regulations concerning training and use.
Darack E. (2012) UAVs: The new frontier for weather research and prediction. Weatherwise 65: 20-27.
Hanson-Easey S., Williams S., Hansen A., et al. (2015). Speaking of climate change: A discursive analysis of lay understandings. Science Communication 37: 217-239.
Stilgoe, J., Owen, R., & Macnaghten, P. (2013). Developing a framework for responsible innovation. Research Policy, 42(9), 1568-1580.
Stocklmayer, S.M., Gore, M.M., & Bryant, C. (2001). Science communication in theory and practice. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.