While Americans are concerned about privacy and safety when they think of drones, a recent UND survey found that Americans may be more accepting of them when they take a deeper look.

The survey, which the university says is the first of its kind to poll attitudes about drones across the nation, was conducted by UND’s Institute of Policy and Business Analytics last year.

Robert “Bo” Wood, professor of political science at UND and the survey’s lead investigator, said in a UND news release that Americans seem to have “a real willingness to balance concerns about privacy and safety with the potential benefits of unmanned systems.”

“That’s encouraging, because while public opinion toward UAS isn’t something that people often think or talk about, it’s an absolutely vital piece,” he said.

A supportive public means the UAS industry will be much more likely to reach its full potential, while a skeptical or unsupportive public could greatly restrict the industry’s growth, Wood said.

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The IPBA conducted its nationwide survey in November and December. With the help of Cloud Research, a leading platform for online surveys and research, a total sample of 4,500 completed online responses were gathered from across the country.

The results “tend to paint a picture of a citizenry that is skeptical and/or cautious about the development of UAS technologies,” an executive summary said. Around 89% of respondents said they were worried about the improper use of UAS by governments, private companies, or both.

When asked about specific activities, “the picture becomes quite different,” the executive summary said.

The survey asked participants to weigh the risks and benefits of UAS in five broad categories: surveying and inspection, research, monitoring and surveillance, delivery, and filming and broadcasting.

  • Surveying and inspection: When asked about using drones to survey construction sites or inspect bridges, dams, power lines and the like, the public’s attitudes “are all quite heavily skewed toward benefits,” according to the executive summary.

On a scale from 0 to 10, with 0 representing “risks far outweigh the benefits” and 10 “the benefits far outweigh the risks,” the inspection of bridges, dams, highways and rail systems “received the highest scores, with a mean of 7.56 and over 1,400 scores of 10.”

  • Research: The benefits outweighed costs in this category as well, with the highest ratings going to the exploration of space (mean 7.07) and volcanoes (mean 7.01).

  • Monitoring and surveillance: These activities “are among the most controversial uses of UAS.

“The highest-rated activity was assisting with search-and-rescue operations, with a mean of 7.68 and nearly 1,600 responses indicating 10. More controversial applications, such as traffic enforcement (mean 6.16) and monitoring persons suspected of criminal activity (mean 6.57) were lower, but still well above midpoint.”

  • Delivery: “Again, the distribution is skewed toward benefits outweighing risks for every activity.” In fact, when respondents were asked to balance the risks vs. benefits of delivering via drone life rings to drowning victims, the results were a mean of 7.92 and more than 1,800 scores of 10.

The lowest scoring activity in this category is “transporting human passengers,” with a mean of 5.09. Meanwhile, the combined mean for the category (which also includes “package delivery to residential addresses,” “delivering food” and “delivery of pesticides and fertilizer to agricultural crops”) is 6.59.

  • Filming and broadcasting: Of the eight activities – including reporting traffic updates, live coverage of events by news organizations and personal recordings with family and friends – associated with filming and broadcasting, “the most common rank was 5, meaning that benefits and risks were perceived as equal.”

“There’s an overall concern about privacy and safety – and that’s a good thing,” said Mark Askelson, who directs UND’s Research Institute for Autonomous Systems. “We should always be concerned when new technologies come along, to make sure they’ll be used in ways that minimize any negative impacts and maximize the benefits.”

Jason Jensen, political science professor and executive director of UND’s Institute of Policy and Business Analytics, said the survey provides not only a snapshot of the attitudes around drones, but also a baseline from which the opinions can be tracked.

“This is the first in a series of surveys for us, as part of UND’s efforts to stay at the forefront of this industry,” Jensen said. “We want to keep tabs on how opinions are changing. And as people become more familiar with UAS and as new policies come into place, we’ll be able to track both how and why those public-opinion changes are taking place.”