Why Americans love dronesJune 26, 2013: 5:00 AM ET
Tools of Big Brother? Not quite. The American public is largely supportive of unmanned aerial vehicles.
By Clay Dillow
FORTUNE -- Gauging purely from the headlines and the tenor of cable television news coverage, one could very easily come to the conclusion that the general public's feeling on domestic drone use in the United States is less-than-enthusiastic. Many civil liberties groups have voiced concerns about Big Brotherly government surveillance via unmanned aerial systems (UAS), concerns no doubt amplified by the ongoing media circus surrounding NSA leaker Edward Snowden and the revelation that the U.S. government has, in fact, been using technology to keep an eye on its citizens. And with the body count still mounting in America's shadow wars in places like Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia -- wars fought almost exclusively via armed Predator and Reaper drones -- public perception toward drones has come off as decidedly negative of late.
But the data tell a different story. A national study released this week by Duke University's Institute for Homeland Security Solutions and non-profit research house RTI International finds that 57% of the general public supports the use of unmanned aircraft for any application. Examined at a more nuanced level, support for drones runs even higher for many specific applications, spiking to nearly 88% for search and rescue applications. (So long, Lassie.)
In fact, where law enforcement is concerned, the public seems overwhelmingly in favor of state actors putting camera-equipped UAS into the sky. Support for homeland security applications scored at 67%, while more general police and crime fighting uses garnered 63% support. But respondents did show a degree of concern over the safe integration of drones into the national airspace. Only 43% of the public expressed support for "everyday use" of drones without a specific, stated purpose, and 67% of those surveyed said they were either "somewhat concerned" or "very concerned" with the potential for unwanted monitoring of private property or public spaces.
Perhaps the most significant finding in the survey: 61% of the public supports the use of drones in commercial applications, an area that is ripe for explosive growth when the FAA opens up the national airspace to small UAS (a regulatory framework for doing so is expected to be in place by end of 2015). The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International -- the UAS industry's largest international trade association -- expects the domestic drone industry to create more than 100,000 new jobs and unleash $82 billion in economic impact across the U.S. alone in the 10 years following integration of commercial UAS into the national airspace, but hostility toward UAS by individual state legislatures has threatened to dampen those impacts as some states have already moved to restrict drone usage before it is approved at the federal level.
While public opinion data on domestic drone use still remains somewhat thin (the IIHSS/RTI survey contained just more than 2,100 responses from a nationwide sample) this latest data indicates the public isn't nearly as negative on domestic drone use as it might seem -- a positive sign for several states that are counting on the coming drone boom to help reboot their high-tech and manufacturing economies.