Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, more commonly known as drones) offer enormous potential benefits for society, but is there a form of tech that is more unfairly maligned and misunderstood?
The benefits of drones to life in the UK could be huge. In a commercial context, drones can help monitor crops in agriculture to reduce failure rates, saving farmers money and helping protect natural resources like water. Drones can cut (currently illegal) air pollution levels in UK cities by reducing the thousands of Amazon, DPD and Just Eat delivery vehicles whisking goods and meals to our homes. In the construction industry, drones can improve site safety for workers and speed up construction projects.
Drones also have non-commercial benefits, improving environmental monitoring and wildlife protection, as well as emergency services use like search and rescue or finding missing persons (see more in the Foundation for Responsible Robotics’s excellent report here).
In summary, there’s a lot to like. But it seems, broadly, we don’t.
There is a lack of positivity in the UK for the benefits of drone technology. A 2017 Aeronautical Society survey found that only 46% of British adults think drones can make an important contribution to the UK economy and society.
According to research conducted by the Department for Transport, awareness of the civic and commercial uses of drone technology was generally low among the public, with the overriding impression being that they are for hobbyists and the military (and negative on both counts!). The same research found that focus group participants warmed to the idea of drones on learning more about their civic and commercial benefits.
People’s concerns range from airport safety (understandable given the Christmas disruption at Gatwick and Heathrow) and privacy concerns to environmental impacts like noise pollution and aesthetic impact on the skies. Critically, privacy and safety concerns rank far above what might uncharitably be labelled nimbyism.
This is important for two reasons. First, drone safety can be proven and people reassured by appropriate regulation (such as effective perimeters around airports). Secondly, we see in our everyday use of technology (Google, Facebook, Amazon) that people are willing to deprioritise privacy concerns if the benefit appears to be great enough.
Which begs the question, what is being done to explain to the public the manifold benefits of drone technology and generate positivity towards their use in everyday life?
ARPAS UK, the UK drone association, has shouldered much of the burden of representing the industry with political and regulatory stakeholders like the Civil Aviation Authority. While ensuring the right regulatory framework is in place and that there is an accepted code of conduct are essential for the future viability of the industry, there is a third wheel – public acceptability. The case for drones is not being made persuasively enough to the public or in the media.
The industry needs to come together, find its voice and use creative, thoughtful storytelling to sell a positive vision to the public at large, while increasing awareness of the commercial and civic use cases. Otherwise, the UK risks falling behind in the deployment of drone technology to the detriment of us all.