Because drones have been used by the military and can simultaneously be bought by anyone at a big box store, people don’t often know what to make of drones, and they don’t really make distinctions between the consumer, commercial, and government user. Drones are drones. This means that anything that happens with drones affects everyone, and that is a challenge for us as an industry.
There have been some amazing drones for good stories such as finding lost children, conducting important environmental research, delivering medical supplies in Africa, and capturing data for three-dimensional digital twins. But there is a counter narrative of news stories that tell a different story. These stories are about rogue drones, militarized drones, drones interfering with firefighters trying to control wildfires, or mysterious drone swarms. Unfortunately, these stories tend to get the lion’s share of the attention.
Yet, mass media is proving to be a powerful force in shaping the hearts and minds of the public on drones. One positive or negative personal experience with a drone can impact a person’s perception for a long time. In fact, these experiences are impacting everything from policy and regulations to the very willingness of people to consider and adopt the technology.
In short, perception matters. This is not a groundbreaking revelation, but it is something that is very easily forgotten when you are working in this industry and can see how amazing this technology is and all of its possibilities.
To give this some real-world context, one of the most infamous events to happen globally with a drone was at Gatwick airport in London. We all know the story by now, back in 2018 a pair of drones flew illegally over controlled airspace putting people at risk and shutting down the airport. Here are a list of words and phrases that were used to describe the incident, which you can still find today with a one-minute Google Search.
- “Drones have been a growing menace” The Independent
- “The drone attack that caused chaos at Gatwick before Christmas was carried out by someone with knowledge of the airport's operational procedures, the airport has said.” BBC News
- “The incident is certainly clear as a call to action for those looking to tighten regulations on drones.” Extreme Tech
- “The chaos caused by drones shutting Gatwick led to sharp criticism of the government, which rushed through tighter restrictions on drone flights near airports.” Tech Crunch
Within these reports, the phrases, growing menace, drone attack, call to action, and chaos all take center stage to paint a picture that drones are dangerous. And these words also had real-world consequences for the industry such as rushed tighter restrictions. The actions of a few drone pilots had far reaching effects on the entire industry.
But this hasn’t been the only incident or example of the media using this kind of language to characterize drones.
In a recent conversation with DroneUp and Skydio, Tom Walker, the founder and CEO of DroneUp, said: “Until COVID-19, you would have a better chance getting hit by a stray golf ball sitting in your bathroom, then you did the media running a positive story about drones.”
And there have been consequences at the local, regional, national, and even global level from fear-based restrictions and bans. These events discourage would-be investors and government officials from supporting, let alone prioritizing, the efforts of the drone industry.
Obviously, this is a problem for an industry that wants to scale and mature at a global level. Not only can reports, like these, result in unhelpful and underinformed regulations and restrictions and discourage people from investing, but at a very basic level it means that people who have a negative view of drones won’t be demanding drone services—we lose the demand for the supply.
And all of this has a very real impact on how regulations and waivers are given by civil aviation authorities like the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, in the United States.
In the same conversation with Tom Walker, Brendan Groves, head of Regulatory and Policy Affairs at Skydio, talked about just how much influence public opinion had on decision making within the FAA.
“If you read the regulatory rules you won’t find a clause that states there must be public acceptance, but that is always something the FAA considers before issuing a waiver,” stated Groves who served on the interagency board that oversees the integration of drones into the national airspace, the FAA UAS Executive Committee, for the last four years. “They may not tell you about it, but they are always thinking about and talking about it—Will the community support your operation? Unless they are confident of this, you are very unlikely to have anyone at the FAA sign their name to grant that waiver. When you sign a waiver at the FAA you don’t get a gold star for enabling advanced operations. What happens is that you get approbation or discredited if something goes wrong—if local residents are up in arms because something happens. The more we, as an industry, can build public support the more likely the FAA will actually support these efforts.”
Knowing that regulations, public perception, and laws significantly impact the success of our industry, what can we do to increase these types of stories?
The silver lining to come out of the pandemic is that it has started to change the public image of drones. This is because we are changing that narrative to demonstrate drones as helpers, life savers, and a way to keep businesses operating and people employed. These are powerful stories that matter to people whose lives have been turned upside down by COVID.
We are already seeing how these stories are having a positive effect on regulations, such as accelerated waiver processes for beyond visual line of sight operations and other advanced operations. These regulations are serving essential and practical needs of the community like helping to fight and monitor wildfires; delivering medications, COVID-19 test kits, medical equipment and supplies, and library books to school children; being a critical aspect of search and rescue operations; and helping to avoid escalations in police operations by providing non-invasive tactical awareness.
These stories start to change the narrative, but we can’t always rely on mass media to pick these drones for good stories up. The dull, dirty, and dangerous jobs we do on a regular basis may never get on mainstream media. But industry can help proactively build its image in ways that have been showing results globally. The following are five ways, we as an industry can impact public opinion and bypass mass media.
- Community outreach and education: If you are doing a project in a new region, spend time talking to the community and local officials to explain what you are doing, the value of what you are doing, and be willing to answer their questions. Do this before you get too far in your planning process as it has already been demonstrated how a lack of community support can end a project before it even begins.
- Obtaining local and regional government support: Many ordinances and restrictions are at the local, regional, and state levels—work with local leaders to help them understand why drones can help their community, to help them craft favorable laws, and to help them explain drones to their constituents. Companies like Airspace Link have made this a priority and have seen a lot of progress in states like North Dakota.
- Transparency and communication: Once you get that initial community and leadership support, keep that good will going by sharing your progress. The more we are open about what we are doing the more likely we will build public trust. Find ways to share videos of your projects, post great stories on websites and social media, build Facebook pages and LinkedIn groups that promote positive stories. Be creative in how you reach the public and be open about what you are doing and why.
- Investing time and money into building drone programs into the curriculum at the elementary, high school, and college levels: For the long term, this may be the most important advice. When Apple started their computers for schools’ program and schools received state-of-the-art computer labs, this made all the difference. Computers became the norm rather than a scary piece of technology. Having the technology to work with means they can imagine a future with it. Making drones a normal part of our lives, a necessary tool, will help build public acceptance and understanding.
- Keeping the public’s perception in mind at all times: Just because a drone can do it, should it? Are you doing it because the drone is the best tool for the job? For example, with the fear that drones are surveillance and military equipment, is it really a good idea to use loudspeaker drones during the pandemic? We should always think about what the basic concerns and fears the public has about drones and try to avoid stirring them up.
If we scale these efforts up, prioritize our public image, and look for ways our businesses can go out into communities and engage with local authorities, we can help build public acceptance, which will lead to favorable laws, regulations, and investments.