December 18, 2018

Use of civilian drones in Germany – DLR study shows acceptance for rescue and research applications, with the existing reservations

Focus: Aviation, unmanned aerial vehicles

Scenarios for the application of civilian unmanned aerial systems (UAS) are becoming increasingly wide-ranging and diverse. In addition to initial tests of parcel deliveries from the air, we are already seeing the first applications in agriculture and the energy sector, where inspections carried out using unmanned aerial vehicles. Research is also being conducted into rapid situation monitoring for civil protection and the transport of medicines and medical equipment during rescue operations. A study by the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) has now revealed that there is clear approval in Germany for the use of civilian drones in civil protection, rescue missions and research work. However, flights for advertising, leisure and parcel delivery purposes are still viewed negatively by at least half of those questioned. Education will help to reduce reservations among the public.

"Regardless of gender or age, the term 'drone' is known to almost everyone, but often retains negative connotations," explains study leader Maria Stolz of the DLR Institute of Flight Guidance in Braunschweig. "Experience with drones remains rare and is more usually passive, rather than active. There is still relatively little information available to the public on this topic." Only around 40 percent of those surveyed said that they had ever seen or heard a drone, while just 10 percent had ever flown a drone themselves. The attitude towards civilian drones depends on gender and age, among other factors. Those expressing an interest in this modern technology were predominantly young males. "We were also interested to see whether the respondents changed their attitude over the course of the interview," says Stolz. "There was a slight shift towards a more positive view. It is possible that addressing the topic and being given information about it encouraged a more favourable opinion."

Support from the police and fire brigade

The researchers were able to establish that there is currently clear approval for the use of drones in civil protection, rescue missions and research work. Around two-thirds of respondents agreed fully or partially with the use of drones in order to ascertain the situation in often inaccessible disaster areas, or to support the police and fire brigade in life-saving missions by providing situational information or location data. DLR is involved in a number of research projects in this area, such as the DRIVER+ and IN-PREP projects, which will enable rescue workers to cope with crises and disasters more quickly in future through the use of drones.

There is also clear approval for using drones to transport urgently needed medical supplies, for gathering traffic data and for monitoring energy supply infrastructure elements, as well as imaging farmland in order to optimise agricultural use. A majority of public opinion is united against photography and video recordings by drones for news broadcasts, and the use of drones for leisure purposes or parcel deliveries. Most reject the idea of uncrewed flights that can take photographs and make video recordings for promotional purposes.

Preferred in uninhabited areas

"We found that people had different ideas about the preferred minimum flight altitude," says Stolz. "In the opinion of the respondents, this may be lower if the flight is in the public interest, as opposed to being for other purposes." Public concern over possible misuse of drones is also high. The consensus is that ideally drones should be used only in uninhabited areas. For drone flights over urban areas, most people thought that they should be restricted to commercial and industrial areas. The option of the police or fire brigade forcing controlled drone landings and the possibility of identifying drones and their owners received widespread support. However, there was clear hostility towards drone use over residential areas and the historic parts of towns and cities, despite the possibility of putting such restrictions in place.

The study on the current acceptance of unmanned aerial vehicles in Germany was funded by DLR's aviation research programme and conducted by the DLR institutes of Flight Guidance and Aerospace Medicine, in conjunction with the Institute for Applied Social Sciences (Institut für angewandte Sozialwissenschaft; infas), which carried out the survey on behalf of DLR. Telephone interviews were conducted with 832 people between the ages of 14 and 94.

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