Public Perception of the Emerging Drone Industry

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DroneWire  |  September 28, 2015
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Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or “drones”) operating in the national airspace has long been a topic of contentious public debate.

Driven by media coverage of “near misses” with manned aircraft, firefighting operations being impeded by drones, or editorials on the privacy issues society faces as a result of their proliferation, public perception of this emerging industry appears to be cast in a negative light.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) estimates that by 2025, the U.S. drone market will create over 100,000 new jobs, and add more than $82 billion in economic activity. Spending by lobbyist firms that list UAVs as an issue has grown from $20,000 in 2001, to $186 million in 2014, and there are currently an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 drones being sold in the U.S. every month.

Widespread adoption of this new technology by businesses and consumers has led, inevitably, to instances of careless or reckless operations. However, these issues pale in comparison to the number of positive drone uses that stand to have a profound and positive impact on society.

DroneWire examines three common public misperceptions concerning drone operations.

Drones are a threat to my privacy.

In the early 2000s, drone use by law enforcement agencies became a heated topic. Many Americans expressed concern over constant, warrantless surveillance, and envisioned skies full of government UAVs similar to those used by the military.

Later, the modern “multicopter” drone industry appeared on the horizon, and carried with it the already negative perception of privacy issues stemming from the use of UAVs.

In the public eye, drones were already seen as a nuisance, and the rapid expansion of this new technology, along with selective reporting of “drone incidents” by the national media, only furthered this view, sometimes to the point of hysteria.

Misperceptions regarding the capability of consumer drones, which comprise the vast majority of devices in use, and a general lack of public education on this new technology, fueled the widespread belief that these unmanned aircraft presented a serious threat to privacy for the entire nation.

In reality, inexpensive consumer UAVs represent an inefficient, impractical platform for surveillance, for the following reasons:

  • Drones are noisy, and most have flashing lights, making them easily noticeable.

  • Most consumer drones carry small, inexpensive cameras with no zoom functionality. In fact, many common drone cameras could have difficulty discerning a man from a woman at 100 feet.

  • Most consumer drones have a flight time of less than 20 minutes.
While drones can be used to monitor areas they should not, the general public faces far more serious “threats” to privacy from DSLR cameras with telephoto lenses, or the thousands of people carrying the latest smartphones with high-resolution cameras that an individual may encounter on a daily basis.

Drones are making air travel unsafe.

The Federal Aviation Administration, national media, and members of Congress have expressed dire concerns over an increasing number of drone sightings by airline pilots and airport control towers. In August, the FAA announced that pilot reports of “close calls” with drones had soared to over 650 in 2015, up from a total of 238 in the prior year.

No one would argue that operating a drone near an airport without authorization, or a solid safety plan, is a smart or safe idea. However, is the extreme level of concern, which has already led to a number of knee-jerk reactions by legislators, really warranted?

According to the Bird Strike Committee USA, an organization tasked with promoting aviation wildlife strike awareness and reporting, civilian and military aircraft sustain $650 million in damages annually from encounters with wildlife. To date, there are zero verified reports of drones striking aircraft in the United States, even with nearly 20,000 business and personal UAVs being sold in the country each month.

Adding to public hysteria are unsubstantiated reports by pilots, like this one by an aerial surveying company operating near Romeoville, Illinois, in which the pilot claimed he “thought the aircraft was hit by a drone,” even though no UAV was sighted. The Smithsonian later confirmed that the collision was in fact, a bird strike, but only after several media outlets had carried the story with an apparent agenda.

Lastly, the Academy of Model Aeronautics released detailed analysis of the data used in the FAA’s claim of a “soaring increase” in the number of close calls between drones and manned aircraft, and found that the records contained a “more complex picture of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) activity in the United States than initial headlines suggested,” with only a fraction of the records suggesting legitimate “close calls”.

Drones have impeded the progress of emergency response services.

Throughout 2015 there have been reports of firefighting aircraft being grounded due to drone activities in their areas of operation. To date, no drone operators have been identified as responsible for these incidents, and no substantial evidence of the reported drone activities has been presented. However, no one can blame firefighting officials for making decisions based on caution and safety.

While some of these incidents are quite likely to have occurred as reported, there’s another aspect of drones and their relation to firefighting that has gone largely unnoticed. That is the widespread acceptance and implementation of life-saving UAV platforms by emergency response services all across the country.

At the same time drones are being blamed for disrupting wildfire operations, the technology is being embraced by officials who see their clear value for monitoring firefighters in the forest, and detecting hotspots that could flare up.

In August, a fire chief in Auburn, Maine successfully used his personal drone to deliver life vests to two boys stuck on rocks in the middle of a flooded river. In Ohio, a drone was used to locate a missing elderly man in only 20 minutes, after a helicopter, dogs, and hundreds of volunteers had failed to do so during days of searching.

Public safety officials and innovative businesses have discovered a wide range of ways to use drones for preventing injuries and saving lives. In 2015, lifeguards at several beaches around the U.S. used drones for spotting sharks. Several companies are developing drones that can search for victims in water, and drop a life preserver or other rescue items when found. One company has even developed a UAV-based “flying ambulance” that can deliver a defibrillator to a heart attack victim.

Drones do present several issues for legislators, our national air traffic system, and emergency responders, however, this new technology is here to stay, and is already proving beneficial in ways that far outweigh the outcry caused largely by misperceptions.

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