We have long suspected that the generally negative public perception of drone technology isn’t good for business. Now, with the release of PwC’s research – Building trust in drones – we have some data to back that up.
PwC’s latest UK research is based on a survey of the public and business leaders on their attitudes towards drone technology and drone regulations. The UK is a particularly interesting place to delve into public opinion for a number of reasons.
Recent years have seen a huge number of suspected ‘near-misses’ between drones and manned aircraft in UK airspace; several drone-assisted prison delivery gangs have been locked up and, most notoriously, air traffic at London’s Gatwick airport was grounded after suspected drone sightings.
A small number of incidents (which represent a tiny fraction of the drones flown in the UK) have led to waves of negative media coverage. But how has that affected public perception?
PwC Research: Less than a third of the UK public feel positive about drones
It would appear that drones have a pretty bad reputation in the UK. Less than a third (31%) of the members of the public surveyed feel positive about the technology.
78% want drone operators to be licensed. 70% are not confident they know who to report drone misuse to. 70% want drone routes to be registered with the CAA.
The top concerns about commercial drones among the public are improper use (41%), the risk of use by criminals (27%) and the risk of an accident (26%).
PwC’s research found public opposition to drones reduces when things get specific and when the wider benefits to society are explained.
The most popular uses of drones among the public were benevolent applications: Search and Rescue (87%), identifying and tracking criminals (80%) and supporting other emergency service efforts (84%).
Disjunct between the public and business leaders
Significantly, PwC’s research highlights that public perception is bleeding into commercial uptake.
More than a third (35%) of business leaders believe drones are not being adopted in their industry because of negative public perceptions, despite 43% of those surveyed arguing that their industry would benefit from drone use.
Commenting on the report, Elaine Whyte, UK drones leader at PwC, said: “There are clear disparities in attitudes towards drones between business and the wider public. It is also strikingly clear that the potential of drone technologies is not fully understood. The drone community across industry, government and civil society needs to change the public discourse from one of uncertainties and toys, to one of opportunity and accountability.
“This can be achieved through better education on the wealth of use cases for drones, as well as increasing understanding of regulation and accountability. The public will only trust a new technology if they understand who is regulating and providing oversight.
“At PwC, we completed our first stock count audit last year using drones and our research has found that drones could add an additional £42bn to the UK economy by 2030. To really achieve these positive outcomes the drone community has much to do to educate wider society.”
What about the media?
A glaring omission from PwC’s report was the impact of negative media coverage on the perception of drone technology.
PwC found that nearly two-thirds (65%) of the UK public believe the Gatwick incident has negatively influenced how they think about drones. Despite an expensive and extensive investigation, we are still no closer to finding out what exactly happened at Gatwick.
An embarrassing game of Chinese Whispers and the possibility that there was never a drone in the first place cannot be ruled out. Sightings from around the world have been disproved at a later date, long after the damage to public opinion had been done.
In part that’s because many media outlets rush to judgement and assume a drone was responsible, fueling the fire of speculation and leaving little room for reasonable doubt.
The PwC report states that “education has a vital role to play in building consumer trust and addressing concerns raised in our research,” and that “it is human nature that we trust things more when we understand them.”
But PwC does not look into the source of that education.
And so it comes back to the classic question of whether the media shapes or reflects public opinion. It’s safe to assume that it does both; that responsible reporting of drone-related incidents is a necessary step toward improving public perception.