Public Policy Center, University of Nebraska


Date of this Version


Document Type



Published in IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, 2 March 2018, pp 80-91.

DOI 10.1109/MTS.2018.2795121


Copyright 2018 IEEE; used by permission.


Projections indicate that, as an industry, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, commonly known as drones) could bring more than 100 000 jobs and $80 billion in economic growth to the U.S. by 2025 [1]. However, these promising projections do not account for how various publics may perceive such technologies. Understanding public perceptions is important because the attitudes of different groups can have large effects on the trajectory of a technology, strongly facilitating or hindering technology acceptance and uptake [2].

To advance understanding of U.S. public perceptions of UAV technologies, we conducted a nationwide survey of a convenience sample of 877 Americans recruited from Amazon’s pool of Mechanical Turk (MTurk) workers. In our surveys, we used short scenarios to experimentally vary UAV characteristics, the end-users of the technology, and certain communication factors (terminology and framing). This allowed us to investigate the impacts of these factors alone and in combination.

In addition, given the conflicts that sometimes arise around scientific findings and technologies (e.g., climate change, vaccines, [3], [4]), we also gave explicit attention to whether and how public support for UAVs varied by self-reported political ideology, issue attitudes, and perceptions of end-user trustworthiness. Finally, because UAVs for civilian purposes represented relatively new technologies at the time of the first survey, we examined whether public opinion is changing over time, as more people become aware of UAVs. We thus administered the same survey twice, separated by one year, in the fall of 2014 and 2015.

The results of our experimental manipulations revealed a surprising lack of impact of terminology and UAV autonomy, a small impact of message framing and UAV end-user, and a relatively large impact of UAV purpose. We did not find that public attitudes changed much over the year between samples, and perceptions of end-user trustworthiness were strong predictors of public support. Still, our regression models only accounted for about 40% of the variance in public support, suggesting that additional variables should be studied in future work to gain a more complete understanding of public support for UAVs. We also found evidence of a small amount of political polarization of public opinion related to who was using the UAVs for what purpose, and this polarization appeared to be changing over time.

Taken together, our results — which may be especially useful to UAV designers, marketers, and policy makers — suggest there is a need to establish that the UAVs are used for valued purposes and by users that publics find to be trustworthy. However, public judgments might be significantly impacted by personal or local ideologies rather than national priorities. In the next section, we describe in more detail prior research on public support for UAVs, and how we formulated our research questions and hypotheses. We then describe our methods, results, and findings in greater detail.