Public Perception of Drone Delivery: New Research from Virginia Tech Reveals What People Really Think

Public perception drone delivery

Public perception of drone delivery has, until now, been relatively poor.  Studies in the U.K. and elsewhere have indicated that at best roughly half of people living in communities surveyed didn’t see the point.

That’s because they’d never seen or received a drone delivery, apparently.  New research from Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP), a federally-designated drone test site, and Lee Vinsel, an assistant professor of science, technology, and society in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, focused on the community of Christiansburg, VA: the first community in the U.S. to implement residential drone delivery service. MAAP and Wing launched the drone delivery program under the  UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP): the trial continues under BEYOND.

When Christianburg’s 22,000 residents were asked about drone delivery – having actually been able to see and use a commercial drone delivery service – answers were resoundingly positive.

“The key thing is that speculation about technologies is different than actual experiences with them,” Vinsel said. “Lots of factors influence how we feel about the technologies in our lives, but something scholars have found repeatedly over for the last sixty years is that familiarity breeds acceptance. To be at an early point in the rollout of this technology and be able to study a population that has actually experienced it is pretty exciting.”

The research, pubished in the spring issue of Issues in Science and Technology, finds that in Christianburg, public perception of drone delivery is great.  87% of those who responded reported that they liked the concept of drone delivery. Wing’s efforts during the pandemic, delivering library books and expanding their service to accommodate more local businesses, were appreciated. “Fifty-eight percent of Christiansburg survey respondents said that their opinion of drone delivery had improved —  a much bigger boost than was measured in a 2020 survey from the Consumer Technology Assocation that polled a general population sample,” says a Virginia Tech press release about the research. “Here again, Christiansburg residents’ experience with drone delivery may have contributed to the jump — seeing a favorite coffee shop find a new way to reach customers without in-person shopping, or a neighbor’s child receive a delivery of sidewalk chalk and crackers, may resonate more than an abstract appreciation for contact-free delivery. ”

Communication Key to Improving Public Perception of Drone Delivery

What may have contributed to the success of the drone delivery program in Christianburg was the significant community outreach project executed before the first drone landed on a residential porch.  MAAP and Wing talked to thousands of residents about what the service would like, answering questions and concerns.

“One of the goals of the IPP was to take a community-oriented approach to drone integration,” said Tombo Jones, MAAP’s director. “There’s not a shortcut here. You need careful, methodical research to demonstrate that the system is safe and reliable. Then you can take that information out into the community, and talk to people to learn what they’re looking for and what their concerns are. It’s rewarding to see how positive the results of this survey are, because they show that, when it’s done the right way, developing new applications for drones can have a genuinely positive impact on a community.”

Contrast that with previous surveys, taken without any experience of drone delivery or explanation of what a drone delivery program might look like: these negative results may not be entirely accurate.

“First, crucially, these surveys polled people who had almost certainly never received a delivery by drone, and were speculating about a service they were imagining rather than reporting on one they’d experienced,” says the release. “Second, many of the survey questions frame their questions in a way that implies risk, asking respondents to rate their level of concern about potential problems selected by the researchers in advance. Highlighting potential negative outcomes may prompt a more negative overall sentiment.”

Key Research Findings

The survey found that of the more than 800 respondents:

  • 87% liked the idea of drone delivery
  • 89% would use the service
  • 58% said their opinion of drone delivery improved during the pandemic

While the news was excellent for public perception of drone delivery, it could also be positive for other commercial drone applications.   Wing and researchers have learned that community outreach, education and experience is a critical factor in improving community acceptance.  Commercial drone service providers can use that approach to open doors in other communities.

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