In the week of Thanksgiving last year, a postcard arrived in the mailboxes in Christiansburg. The link to the poll was on the back. On the front was a picture that until then was very familiar to residents of the city, which in 2019 went down in history as the first place in the U.S. to have a residential drone delivery service: a yellow-winged drone with a small cardboard box tucked under it.
Twenty questions in the survey were designed to measure how 22,000 Christianburg residents feel about drone delivery – the first time this question has been asked to a community that has truly experienced the service. The research was developed and conducted by researchers from the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP), a federally designated drone testing site, and Lee Vinsel, an assistant professor of science, technology and society at the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.
Primary Finding: 87 percent of people who responded to the survey reported that they liked the idea of delivering drones. Stunningly positive results, published in the spring issue of the magazine Issues in science and technology, plant a new stake in the soil for the future of technology that is still at the beginning of its transition from research to retail.
Interest in drone delivery is growing. The service in Christiansburg, run by Wing, Alphabet’s drone delivery subsidiary, is the most advanced of the few trial services in operation today. But drone technology – and the laws governing it – are maturing, and such services are expected to become routine in the next few years.
Whether it succeeds or not will depend in large part on how the public reacts. Package delivery to homes takes place in the public eye to a greater extent than many other drone applications: People can see drones in the commercial area where they pick up their cargo, at the customer’s home, and in neighborhoods in between.
Accurate public opinion assessments are crucial for regulatory agencies developing rules to regulate its use, and state and local governments are considering whether to encourage it, in addition to companies that are pioneers in these services and hope to increase their business.
So far, however, data has been limited and usually not encouraging: A handful of research on the subject has limited public support for drone delivery to about 50 percent in the U.S. and lower in Europe and the UK.
But several factors suggest that these anemic results may not be definitive.
First, most importantly, this research surveyed people who almost certainly never received a drone delivery and speculated about the service they envisioned, rather than reporting on someone they experienced. Second, many survey questions ask their questions in a risk-taking manner, asking respondents to pre-assess the level of concern about potential problems selected by the researchers. Highlighting potential negative outcomes can trigger a more negative overall feeling.
At the time, Christianburg was a unique opportunity to explore.
“Assessing people’s reactions to new technologies can be really difficult, including the fact that it’s so easy to be biased towards respondents’ attitudes, ”Vinsel said. “We wanted to create a survey that was as neutral as possible to examine feelings about drone delivery. And Christianburg was a great opportunity for us because it was the only population that actually experienced these systems.”
The research asked respondents about standard demographic factors and their typical response to new technologies. They were asked about how familiar they were with the delivery of drones, how they found out about it and what was their general attitude towards it. Instead of asking about specific risks and benefits, researchers asked open-ended questions about what respondents see as positive and negative aspects of technology.
The research was approved by the Virginia Tech Institutional Review Board; Wing helped fund research development and distribution through an existing research contract with MAAP, but the analysis was fully funded by Virginia Tech. Adeline Guthrie, a graduate student of statistics at the Faculty of Science and an associate in the group for statistical applications and innovation, assisted in data analysis.
The results were astonishingly positive.
Not only did 87 percent of respondents report a positive attitude about drone delivery, 89 percent indicated whether they were likely to use the service or already had it, and 49 percent said they liked the idea of drones used to deliver packages more than drones used for other purposes.
All of these results differ dramatically from the results of other studies, in which positive mood never exceeded 51 percent, and delivery was a relatively unpopular application when ranked relative to others.
The survey also asked respondents if their opinion had changed since the pandemic. When COVID-19 hit Virginia in March, the number of people who signed up for Wing’s service and ordered drone deliveries increased. Wing teamed up with additional local businesses and collaborated with the school library on book delivery.
The results of the survey suggest that these contributions helped. The pandemic often arose in the open question of the positive aspects of technology. Fifty-eight percent of respondents from Christianburgburg said their opinion on drone delivery has improved – a much bigger incentive than measured in a 2020 Consumer Technology Association survey that surveyed a general sample of the population.
Here, too, the jumps of drone delivery residents may have contributed to the jumps, as a favorite cafe found a new way to reach customers without a personal purchase, or a neighbor’s child who received a supply of chalk and crackers from the sidewalk might resonate more than abstract gratitude for contactless delivery.
MAAP worked with Wing to launch a drone delivery program as part of the federal UAS Pilot Integration Program, a drone integration initiative that brought together government agencies, local governments and companies to advance the introduction of drone applications that could have significant benefits for communities. continues under the IPP successor program BEYOND). MAAP and Wing spent months contacting the community before launching the service, talking to thousands of Christianburg residents about what the service would look like.
“One of the objectives of the IPP was a community-oriented approach to drone integration,” said Tombo Jones, MAAP director. “There are no shortcuts here. You need careful, methodical research to show that the system is secure and reliable. Then you can take that information out into the community and talk to people to find out what they are looking for and what worries them. It is rewarding to see the results of this survey positive because they show that, when done in the right way, the development of new drone applications can have a truly positive impact on the community. ”
The team hopes future research will reveal more details about how people’s opinions develop before and after being exposed to drone delivery, the aspects of drone delivery that encourage the most enthusiasm or skepticism, and what factors help determine how someone feels about technology.
“The key thing is that speculations about technologies are different from actual experiences with them,” Vinsel said. “A lot of factors affect how we feel about technology in our lives, but something scientists have discovered many times over the last 60 years is that knowledge breeds acceptance. Being at the early stage of introducing this technology and being able to study the population that it really is the experience is quite exciting. ”