April 23, 2024

A postcard was delivered to Christiansburg mailboxes last week in celebration of Thanksgiving. The back contained a link to a survey. The front featured a picture familiar to town residents, the first to offer residential drone delivery services in 2019. This was a small, yellow-winged drone with a cardboard box underneath.

The survey asked 20 questions to gauge the opinions of Christiansburg’s 22,000 residents about drone delivery. This was the first time such a question had been asked of a community that had experienced the service. Researchers from Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, a federally-designated drone test site, and Lee Vinsel (an assistant professor of science and technology in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences) developed and conducted the survey.

The main finding was that 87 percent of respondents to the survey liked the idea of drone delivery. These overwhelmingly positive results, published in the spring issue of Issues In Science and Technology, are a significant step forward in developing this technology, which is still in its early stages of transitioning from research to retail.

Interest in drone delivery is rising. The most advanced trial service is currently in Christiansburg, and Wing, Alphabet’s drone-delivery subsidiary, runs it. However, drone technology and the laws that govern it are maturing, and services like this could soon become routine.

The public’s response will determine whether they are successful or not. The delivery of packages to homes is more visible than other drone applications: People might see the drone where it picks its cargo, at the customer’s home, or in the surrounding neighborhoods.

It is crucial that the regulatory agencies accurately estimate the public’s opinion to develop rules for its use. State and local governments also need to consider whether to encourage it.

However, the data on drone delivery could be more extensive and encouraging. The few surveys in this area show public support at 50 percent in the U.S. and much lower in Europe and Britain.

However, there are several reasons to believe the results may not be conclusive.

The first and most important thing is that these surveys surveyed people without a drone delivery. They were also speculating on a service they imagined rather than reporting on an experience. The survey questions often ask respondents to rate their concerns over potential problems. Highlighting possible adverse outcomes may prompt a more negative overall sentiment.

Christiansburg was then a rare research opportunity.

Vinsel stated that “Gauging peoples’ reactions to new technology can be complicated,” adding that it is accessible to bias respondents’ views. We wanted to ensure that the survey was neutral in assessing sentiments regarding drone delivery. We saw Christiansburg as a unique opportunity because it had a population that had experienced these systems.

Respondents were asked about their demographic characteristics and their response to new technologies. The survey asked respondents about their knowledge of drone delivery and how they learned about it. It also asked them about their attitudes toward it. Researchers did not ask about specific benefits and risks but instead asked about the positive and negative aspects.

Virginia Tech Institutional Review Board approved the survey—Wing-funded survey development and distribution under an existing contract with MAAP. However, the analysis was entirely sponsored by Virginia Tech. Adeline Guthrie was a graduate student at the College of Science in statistics and a collaborator with the Statistical Applications and Innovations Group. She assisted in data analysis.

The results were overwhelmingly positive.

Not only did 87 percent of respondents express positive sentiment about drone delivery, but 89 percent indicated that they would use it or had already used it. Forty-nine percent also reported liking the idea of drones being used for parcel delivery more than drones used to deliver other items.

These results are vastly different from other surveys in which positive sentiment was never above 51 percent, and delivery could have been more popular when compared to others.

Respondents were also asked if their opinions had changed since the epidemic. The number signing up for Wing’s service soared after COVID-19 struck Virginia in March. Wing partnered with other local businesses and teamed up with a school librarian to deliver books.

These contributions were deemed to have helped, according to the survey results. The pandemic was frequently mentioned in the open-ended survey about the positive aspects of drone delivery. Respondents to the Christiansburg survey said that their perception of drone delivery has improved by 58%, a higher percentage than was recorded in a 2020 survey conducted by the Consumer Technology Association. This survey surveyed a broad population sample.

Again, Christiansburg residents may have experienced drone delivery. Seeing a favorite coffee shop reach new customers without in-person shopping or a neighbor’s child receive a delivery on the sidewalk might be more impactful than an abstract appreciation of contact-free delivery.

MAAP collaborated with Wing to launch the drone delivery pilot program under the federal UAS Integration Pilot Program. This drone integration program brought together state agencies and local governments to accelerate the rollout of drone applications that could benefit communities significantly. The trial is still ongoing under the IPP successor program BEYOND. MAAP and Wing did outreach to Christiansburg residents months before the service was launched.

Tombo Jones, MAAP director, stated that one of the IPP’s goals was to adopt a community-oriented approach to drone integration. There is no shortcut. It would help if you did careful and systematic research to prove the system works. You can then get feedback from the community about what they want and their concerns. It’s gratifying to see the positive results of the survey. They show that when done correctly, new drone applications can positively impact a community.

Future research by the team will provide more information about people’s attitudes to drone delivery. It will also reveal which aspects of drone delivery inspire the most enthusiasm and skepticism.

Vinsel stated that speculation about technology is different from experience with it. While many factors influence our feelings about technology in our lives, one thing scholars have repeatedly found over the past 60 years is that acceptance breeds familiarity. It is exciting to be part of the rollout and to study a population that has experienced it.

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