What do drone users and drone developers think about their use?

Widely understood as unstaffed aircrafts generally fitted with cameras that can be remotely controlled (Howley, 2018), drones are literally and figuratively taking off. From parcel deliveries, rescue operations, film making, aerial surveillance, as well as enjoyment for the avid amateur, the uses for drones is as limitless as their altitude.

Global market revenues for drones increased 34% in 2017 with almost three million drones produced that year, 39% more than 2016. This figure is expected to grow exponentially in the coming years. Although they present potentially exciting benefits to society their use also brings challenges that academia, industry and governments need to address.

Drones, as flying robots, can capture images that would be difficult to take with ordinary cameras or in risky situations, providing a wealth of visual information which would otherwise be hard to access. Just a few years back, the term ‘drone’ had a more negative connotation, associated with terrorism and espionage, but now the potential for drones to change the way we see all kinds of phenomena is starting to by recognised more and more.

An important part of this development has been that not only are drones increasingly important to a range of industries, but they are now accessible to the general public. Prior to the development of drones, taking photographs or videos from the air required the expensive rental of helicopter aircraft, but now taking aerial images is becoming easy and affordable even for non-professionals.

Increasingly, drones are used not only by drone operators with valid Civil Aviation Authority permission, but also by general users. This is reflected in the rise of online communities such as DIYdrones.com and social media platforms like Dronestagram, Travel by drone, and Drone Trotter.

One challenge with this uptake is that governments’ attempts to establish and enforce regulation for the use of drones has not kept up. In fact, existing regulation, particularly in relation to the use of drones for amateur purposes, is not clear, limited to permissions and exceptions and is not enforced effectively. With this lack of guidance, general users collect, share and store visual data following their individual ethics and restrain, raising the concern among the general public.

Whilst legislative development in this area is ongoing, one striking omission is that no-one appears to have spoken to drone developers or users about this topic, or indeed, about their development, use, and potential future impact more widely. Despite the growing use of drones there is little understanding of their effects in society as research to date has focussed mainly on technical aspects (for example, Gupta et al, 2015 and Yang et al, 2017) and on the implications of the use of drones in extreme environments, such as warzones (for example, Sauer and Schornig, 2012 and Agius, 2017).

A new project funded by British Academy/Leverhulme will fill this gap, explicitly focussing on users’ and developers’ perspectives on drone usage. In particular, it will investigate what users think about their usage, whether they are aware of existing policies, what they think constitutes appropriate usage and how drones’ usage should be regulated. At the same time, there is not much understanding of how drone developers imagine their drones will be used. Both users and developers will therefore be encouraged to imagine the possibilities and pitfalls, and how drones are changing the very way we see the world, with all the far-reaching consequences this might bring.

In this, it is hoped that this new project will help us to understand how to mitigate the risks and maximise the opportunities afforded by drone technology. One thing seems certain at present: drones are set to become an integral part of modern life. What might surprise us all is just how quickly this happens.

Dr Elisa Serafinelli, Research Associate, Department of Sociological Studies.