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New Study Finds Americans Don’t Hate Drones Anymore, Though Many Fear Them for Safety Reasons

BY Zacc Dukowitz
24 December 2019

A new study from the Hawthorn Group, a public affairs firm based in Alexandria, VA, finds that a majority of Americans view drones favorably and trust the drone industry.

This finding and others from the study were shared by veteran U.S. political and crisis communications expert John Ashford, chairman of The Hawthorn Group, at Amsterdam Drone Week earlier this month.

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The study is based on a poll the Hawthorn Group commissioned from marketing research group TargetPoint.

801 telephone interviews were conducted by TargetPoint from November 17-19, with a margin of error of +/- three points. Additional information for the study was gathered from research group 1Q, who used an online poll on November 25 to collect data on how Americans feel about shooting down drones and about security threats from Chinese drones.

Here is an overview of the study’s findings:

Positive Findings

  • 68% of respondents believe that commercial [drone] use over communities will be safe.
  • 70% of respondents expect home delivery in 5-10 years.
  • 58% think drones are a good idea; 42% do not.

Negative Findings

  • 68% of respondents are concerned about safety and drones; only 7% are not concerned at all.
  • 51% support neighborhood drone deliveries; 49% think they are too dangerous.
  • 82% believe commercial drones used for small scale and cargo deliveries will cause a serious accident sooner or later.
  • 71% have privacy concerns.
  • 93% want some form of regulation.

Big Changes in Public Perception

The favorability finding is a big change from the public perception commonly held of drones when they first became popular just a few years back.

58% [of Americans] think drones are a good idea.

—The Hawthorn Group 2019 Drone Study

For a long time, drones and the drone industry at large were perceived with general mistrust. Many worried that drones would be used to spy on them, by both private citizens and by the government.

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A concrete example of these fears is embodied in the Drone Federalism Act of 2017, also called the Feinstein Drone Act when it was put forth by Diane Feinstein in mid-2017.

The Act proposed moving jurisdiction for the National Airspace System (NAS) from the FAA to state and local authorities, allowing them to create their own drone laws and regulations.

If turned into law, the Act would have made commercial drone operations virtually impossible. Only huge companies that could afford to hire legal teams to parse out the laws in one area to the next would have been able to operate, and a single operator might have needed to hold several commercial certificates if he or she wished to cross county—or city, or state, or tribal—boundaries during a mission and still be in full compliance with the law.

Why did Senator Feinstein create the Act?

Because of privacy concerns. In 2014, in a story she told often when she first proposed her Act, she claimed that a drone was used to spy on her through her window while a rally was going on outside her home. (It could have been the case that the drone was simply filming the rally for a media outlet.)

At the time, privacy concerns were all people seemed to think about when the topic of drones came up, with nothing much that was positive to outweigh these negative concerns.

And privacy concerns still exist—71% of respondents in this survey found that they had them, which is a big majority.

But they now seem to be offset in public perception by the understanding of the good that drones can do. Back in 2017, I doubt that 58% of Americans would think that “drones are a good idea” or 68% would think that “commercial [drone] use over communities would be safe.”

Why The Change?

The survey didn’t ask respondents why they believed commercial drones use would be safe over communities or why they believed drones were a good idea. But we can speculate about what might have changed in the last few years to help influence public opinion about drones for the better.

Here are a few factors that may have helped:

  • The UAS IPP has introduced ten locally run drone programs throughout the U.S. to test various types of drone operations. In these programs, drones are helping communities in various ways and their use is being regulated by local authorities—both of these things are positive for public perception.
  • New FAA permissions for various types of drone operations have been big—and positive—news over the last year or so, largely around drone delivery. Many of these permissions are a result of testing done through the UAS IPP.
  • Drones have become mainstream. The name DJI is now common-place in the U.S., and other popular drone companies, like The Drone Racing League, have helped usher in a time when we’re not surprised to learn our neighbor owns one—or two, or even three—drones.
  • People understand the value of commercial drone use because it is being put on display more and more often. We see drones being used by wedding photographers and to shoot the movies we watch (almost every movie seems to have a drone shot these days); we see drone light shows in the news; and we often hear about ways that drones are helping in industrial scenarios and public safety scenarios, and elsewhere.

Additional Findings on Chinese Security Concerns

In addition to the polling around safety and general public sentiment about drones, the Hawthorn Group’s study looked at how people feel about security concerns related to the use of Chinese drones in the U.S.

The answers were overwhelmingly against the use of Chinese drones, and show that most people have already heard something about the security concerns surrounding the use of DJI (or other) Chinese drones, especially by the U.S. government.

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Here is what respondents had to say:

  • 83% think security concerns about Chinese manufacturers are valid.
  • 71% think Chinese made drones should be banned from U.S. Government Agencies.
  • 55% think Chinese made drones should be banned from U.S. businesses and individuals.

Concerns around Drone Data Security

Lately, security issues have been growing around drone data, and these concerns are making the news.

DroneSense, a platform originally designed to support the use of drones in public safety applications, had a data breach recently that allowed private information from police departments and other clients to be publicly available on the web for over a month.

An email from the FAA in which drone pilots are warned not to use LAANC for sensitive missions because its data may not be secure has also been in the news this month.

And finally, back to the original concerns of the survey, DJI has been continuing to make headlines related to data security.

[Worried your DJI drone might be sharing data without you knowing it? Check out our article on how to make sure your DJI drone isn’t sharing data.]

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