What People Really Think About Drones: EASA High Level Conference Addresses Societal Concerns

EASA LogoAt Amsterdam Drone Week today, the EASA High Level Conference on Drones discussed critical issues for regulation and the drone industry – and one of them is how the public perceives drones, as that perception influences regulation around the globe.

A panel of aviation regulators and thought leaders took the stage, including Luc Tygat, Director of Strategy and Safety of EASA, Jay Merkle, Head of Unmanned Integration at the FAA, Joachim Lücking of the European Commission, Raimund Kamp of the German Federal Ministry of Transport, and Chantal Lavellée of Roya Military College St.-Jean.  While all of the panelists agree that public perception has the potential to limit the drone industry’s growth, no country or organization has a definitive answer on how to solve the problem.

“Indeed, this is an issue of growing importance,” said Kamp.  “It’s not only about safety – we can handle safety.  But in societal acceptance, safety is only one aspect: other aspects include privacy, environmental… and other concerns we don’t even know about.”

“40% of surveyed people view drones negatively,”  says Kamp.  That’s a discouraging statistic, but in unpacking that figure, data indicates that there are only 3 areas of operations that most people object to: recreational use, urban package delivery, and food delivery.

Lücking explained how societal concerns were taken into account in developing EASA drone regulations.  “Societal concerns were at the heart of the regulations,” he said.  “It was very important to us -the success or lack of success in this industry will depend upon how well [the industry] can answer the legitimate concerns of the people.”

Privacy, noise, and security are all named as public concerns.  In Europe, regulators have made efforts to create standards for drone hardware based on noise and emissions.

Lavellée points out that we may not be yet at the stage of public perception but still at the stage of public awareness – her research indicates that citizens around the globe are still not aware of the scale and scope of the commercial drone industry and potential applications, outside of recreational and delivery drones.  “We should not underestimate the societal impact of these technologies… how will that effect the normal citizen in his daily life?” she says.  Campaigns of education about the benefits that drones may provide are critical, she says.

While educating the public about the benefits of drones as well the difference between real risk and perceived risk, all regulators agree that reaching rogue drone operators who may be generating complaints is extremely difficult.  “What we find is that the problem is not with responsible and legal drone operators, it’s with the ‘careless, clueless, and criminal.’  That community of irresponsible operators is almost unreachable – and that’s where our societal risk lies,” says the FAA’s Jay Merkle.

The only way to mitigate the effects of those “rogue operators” is to continue to educate communities about what’s happening – and why.  “We’re trying to communicate the benefits to people,” says Merkle, “Communicate, communicate, communicate.”


Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.
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