No matter how you look at it, robotics are playing a larger and larger role in our everyday lives. Whether it's automation in manufacturing, smarter vehicles, or drones, devices are getting smarter and making us more productive in the process.
But not everyone is excited about the growing role robotics, and particularly drones, could play in our lives. It is an uphill battle in the drone industry to change public sentiment and prove that drones can be safe for businesses to operate around populated areas.
Fear of the unknown
The Pew Research Center and Smithsonian Magazine recently asked Americans about advances in "futuristic" technologies like robotics and drones, and the data showed there's a lot of fear of the unknown. 59% of people think technology will make our lives better over the next 50 years, but where that technology is used impacts how they feel about the technology.
For example, 81% of people expect people needing organ transplants will be able the have them grown in a lab, but 53% of people think implantable technology made to show information about the world around them would be a change for the worst.
Not so fast on the drone revolution
Drones, which are already starting to be legalized in the U.S., had some of the worst public sentiment among questionnaires. It's also an area where companies large and small have huge hope for growth going forward. Boeing (NYSE:BA) bought drone maker Insitu for $400 million to get into commercial drones, Aerovironment (NASDAQ:AVAV) is the military's largest small drone supplier, DJI is a favorite among hobbyists, and even Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) is hoping to deliver packages via drones in the future. They're hoping a projected $98 billion market over the next 10 years finally opens up.
Standing in the way is a public very skeptical of drones. Here are a few stats that show where a few demographic groups stand on drones.
- People aren't excited about drones: 63% of Americans think it would be a change for the worst if personal or commercial drones are used commonly in U.S. airspace.
- Men are more excited about drones: The data showed that 27% of men approved of drones, while just 18% of women did.
- Younger people are interested in drones: Not surprisingly, younger Americans are a bit more accepting of the possibility of drones. 30% of adults age 18-29 think drones would be a change for the better, to just 16% of those over 65.
Public sentiment is firmly against widespread drone use, whether it's for commercial or personal use. But it's still not known exactly what wider use of drones would mean in this country.
Fear of the unknown
What's unusual about the drone debate today is that how drones could be used in the future isn't well defined. Amazon has proposed delivering packages with drones, but there aren't yet regulations governing how drones can be controlled when operating independently, how they would keep from crashing into each other or other objects, and how the public will be kept safe. Commercial drones the FAA has given the OK to fly are currently confined to remote locations like Northern Alaska, farms, and domestic oil fields, where these risks are minimal.
Current drone flight also doesn't give people much context into how a drone operates, or how they may interact with them on a day-to-day basis. If the only drones you've heard of are delivery drones from Amazon, or the story about a drone crashing at the White House, it's understandable to be skeptical about how they could be used on a widespread basis.
The challenge for drone makers
Maybe the biggest challenge for those who want to expand drone use is how to overcome the public's skepticism and how to operate safely. The FAA has said this is their main concern with drone regulation, and that position is understandable. Even one crash that injures an innocent bystander could spell disaster for the industry, so getting regulations right is paramount if drone use is to be expanded.
More testing and proof that drones can fly safely is surely needed, but public education will be part of the industry's responsibility as well. The industry is facing nearly two-thirds of the country against their very existence, a big obstacle to overcome to reach widespread usage. Time will tell if the public can be assuaged, but one way or another, it appears drones are coming. It's only a matter of time.