A postcard arrived in Christiansburg mailboxes the week before Thanksgiving last year. On the back, there was a link to a survey. On the front was a photo of residents of a town that made history in 2019 as the first place in the United States to have a residential drone delivery service never seen before: a yellow-winged drone with a small cardboard box tucked underneath it.

The survey’s 20 questions were designed to determine how Christiansburg’s 22,000 people felt about drone delivery — the first time such a question had been asked to a group that had used the service. Researchers from the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP), a federally designated drone test site, and Lee Vinsel, an assistant professor of science, technology, and society in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, designed and carried out the survey.

The main finding was that 87 percent of those who replied to the survey liked the concept of drone delivery. The resoundingly optimistic findings, published in the spring issue of Issues in Science and Technology, placed a new stake in the ground for the future of a technology that is still in its early stages of transformation from research to retail.

Drone delivery is gaining popularity. The Christiansburg service, operated by Wing, Alphabet’s drone-delivery subsidiary, is the most advanced of the few trial services currently in operation. However, drone technology — and the laws that govern it — are evolving, and it is anticipated that services like these will become popular in the coming years.

Whether or not they are popular can be determined in large part by how the public reacts. People may see the drone in the industrial area where it picks up its cargo, at the customer’s house, and in the communities in between while delivering packages to homes, which unfolds in the public eye to a greater extent than many other applications for drones.

Accurate estimates of public opinion are crucial for regulatory agencies creating regulations to regulate its use, state, and local governments debating whether to allow it, and corporations pioneering these programs and aiming to scale their businesses.

Until now, however, data has been small and generally uninspiring: a handful of surveys on the subject have pegged public support for drone delivery at around 50% in the United States and lower in Europe and the United Kingdom.

However, some factors indicate that those anemic findings might not be conclusive.

First, and most importantly, these polls interviewed people who had almost certainly never received a drone delivery and were speculating about a service they had imagined rather than reporting on one they had seen. Second, many of the survey questions frame their questions in a risky manner, asking respondents to rate their level of concern about possible problems chosen in advance by the researchers. Highlighting potential negative outcomes can lead to a more negative overall attitude.

Christiansburg, then, represented a unique research opportunity.

“Estimating people’s reactions to new technology can be extremely difficult, especially because it is so easy to bias respondents’ views,” Vinsel explained. “We decided to build a survey that was as unbiased as possible in order to investigate public opinion on drone delivery. And Christiansburg was a fantastic opportunity for us because it had a special population that had firsthand knowledge of these systems.”

Respondents were questioned about traditional demographic factors as well as their usual reaction to new technologies in the survey. It inquired about their familiarity with drone delivery, how they learned about it, and their overall attitude toward it. Instead of thinking about particular risks and advantages, the researchers asked open-ended questions about the technology’s positive and negative aspects.

The Virginia Tech Institutional Review Board approved the survey; Wing helped finance the survey production and delivery via an existing research contract with MAAP, but the study was entirely funded by Virginia Tech. Adeline Guthrie, a graduate student in statistics and a partner with the Statistical Applications and Innovations Group, assisted with data processing.

The Outcomes were Generally positive.

Not only did 87 percent of respondents express positive sentiment about drone delivery, but 89 percent said they were likely to use the service or had already done so, and 49 percent said they preferred the concept of drones used for package delivery over drones used for other purposes.

Both of these findings contrast sharply with previous polls, in which positive opinion never surpassed 51 percent and distribution was a highly unpopular application as compared to others.

Respondents were also asked if their views had changed after the pandemic. When COVID-19 reached Virginia in March, the number of people who signed up for Wing’s service and ordered drone deliveries increased dramatically. Wing collaborated with other local businesses and a school librarian to distribute books.

According to the survey findings, these contributions were beneficial. In the open-ended debate about positive aspects of technology, the pandemic came up frequently. Fifty-eight percent of Christiansburg survey respondents said their view of drone delivery had increased, a much larger increase than estimated in a Consumer Technology Association poll of a general population sample in 2020.

Again, Christiansburg residents’ familiarity with drone delivery may have led to the increase — seeing a favourite coffee shop find a new way to meet customers without in-person shopping, or a neighbor’s child receiving a delivery of sidewalk chalk and crackers, may ring more true than an abstract enthusiasm for contact-free delivery.

MAAP collaborated with Wing to launch the drone delivery programme as part of the federal UAS Integration Pilot Program, a drone-integration project that brings together state agencies, local governments, and businesses to accelerate the deployment of drone applications that could have major community benefits (the trial is continuing under the IPP successor programme BEYOND). Before the service launched, MAAP and Wing undertook months of community outreach, speaking with thousands of Christiansburg residents about what the service would entail.

“One of the IPP’s priorities was to take a community-oriented approach to drone integration,” said MAAP director Tombo Jones. “There is no shortcut here. To demonstrate that the system is safe and secure, cautious, methodical research is needed. Then you can go out into the community and speak and people to find out what they’re looking for and what their needs are. It’s gratifying to see how optimistic the survey results are since they demonstrate that, when done correctly, creating new applications for drones can have a truly positive effect on a community.”

Future research, the team hopes, will reveal more information on how people’s views change before and after being introduced to drone delivery, the aspects of drone delivery that inspire the most excitement or the most skepticism, and what factors help decide how someone will feel about the technology.

“The important thing to remember is that speculation about technology differs from real experiences with them,” Vinsel said. “A variety of factors affect how we feel about the innovations in our lives, but researchers have discovered repeatedly over the last 60 years that familiarity breeds acceptance. It’s pretty interesting to be at an early stage in the rollout of this technology to be able to observe a population that has already seen it.”