What is the public perception of the use of drones? A new research project explores the matter.


The use of new technologies in humanitarian settings is a fascinating subject with significant ethical and social impacts. Dr Ning Wang is an ethicist and political scientist based at the Digital Society Initiative (DSI) of the University of Zurich (UZH). Her research focuses on the broader societal impacts of emerging and future technology, with a particular interest in drones.

With Prof. Blanchet – an expert in global health – Dr Wang looked at the “air ambulance” initiative of using drones to transport patients within the Geneva region. In 2019, the Canton of Geneva approved the development of an air ambulance drone prototype. The idea was to offer door-to-door delivery of health services over lakes or mountainous areas and transport non-urgent patients between hospitals. Such interest led Dr Wang and Prof. Blanchet to develop SADUS – “Societal Acceptance of Drones in Urban Switzerland”, a new, larger research project. The researchers aim to create evidence-based knowledge around the prevailing perceptions about and the divergent attitudes toward the urban use of drones and to raise awareness of the ethical and social implications related to the deployment of high-impact technologies more broadly. 

We spoke with Dr Wang about the SADUS project and the ethical and social concerns surrounding using high-impact technologies. 

Q – Your past research focused on the ethical dimension of using technologies in humanitarian settings. Could you explain how drones are commonly used in these contexts and the so-called “good drones” concept?

In the past decade, innovation has become an area of focus in the humanitarian sector. Innovation appears in institutional initiatives, donor speeches, policy documents and media coverage, leading to new initiatives, partnerships, and funding programmes. Alongside these developments, there have been discussions around ethical principles in humanitarian innovation and concerns about whether and how populations affected by crises benefit from innovations. Therefore, a normative analysis of ethical challenges associated with humanitarian innovation is needed to understand what is at stake and how best to move forward regarding using emergent technology in the aid sector.

As humanitarian needs and the complexity of aid programmes in challenging conditions continue to expand, populations affected by disasters or living in remote locations often struggle to recover in post-disaster environments or to receive aid supplies. Against this background, emerging technologies are widely used in humanitarian and development settings by aid agencies around the globe. As a prominent “flagship” of the so-called humanitarian technology, drones are increasingly being deployed to address such barriers.

The current practice of the humanitarian use of drones revolves around two main applications: disaster mapping and medical supply delivery. These so-called “good drones” offer novel solutions that harness this technology to provide disaster relief or aid supplies to those in need. The rising use of “good drones” has required sustained engagement among diverse actors. These activities have brought together drone manufacturers and operators, insurance companies, airspace regulators, ministries of health as well as development and humanitarian workers to collaborate in new ways. This situation presents communication and operational challenges given the different areas of expertise, approaches, and vocabulary used in daily operations across the different actors. It is, thus, important to critically appraise how technological innovation intersects with values, norms, beliefs and moral commitments, including the relationship between technological innovation and humanitarian principles. If not, the relationship between innovation and experimentation may be obscured, participation and inclusion may be afforded limited attention, and risks and benefits may be unevenly distributed.

Q – What are the key ethical concerns surrounding the use of drones, for example, in the humanitarian contexts?

I give you two concrete examples of my field studies conducted in Nepal and Malawi in 2019, which offer great insights.

In the Nepal study, technological innovation advocates have repeatedly portrayed the humanitarian response to the 2015 earthquake as “a success story that can be sold”. In such narratives, technology is often depicted as the “magic solution” to resolve social and structural problems. However, the reality on the ground is more complicated, with high expectations but uncertain benefits being realised. Ultimately, the analysis boils down to two core aspects: on the one hand, the role of emerging technologies in a precarious context where diverse factors are at play, all of which may trigger vulnerabilities for affected populations. On the other hand, the role of the aid sector in an increasingly technologised ecosystem, where new models of delivering humanitarian services present challenges of alignment to the fundamental humanitarian principles.

Although the culture of taking risks and accepting failure is mainstream in innovation, such attitudes may not suit humanitarian contexts, where fundamental principles are derived from the humanitarian imperative of alleviating suffering and assisting people affected by crises.

The Malawi study used drones to deliver medical supplies to two remote islands. In this context, in-depth interviews revealed a mentality of “killing two birds with one stone”, whereby drones enable the tech industry to associate their image with humanitarian causes and to trial products on a large scale in countries where needs are widespread and regulation is relaxed. This dual-purpose approach is potentially problematic because introducing new technologies to development programmes can have negative consequences for affected populations in the sense of both short-term risks related to the safety of the technology and long-term implications with respect to the experimentation approach, sustainability of benefits, and what might be displaced.

Although the culture of taking risks and accepting failure is mainstream in innovation, such attitudes may not suit humanitarian contexts, where fundamental principles are derived from the humanitarian imperative of alleviating suffering and assisting people affected by crises.

Photo credit: Dr Ning Wang.

Q – Why are you and Prof. Blanchet focusing your research on the public perception of using drones in the urban setting of Switzerland?

Currently, drones not only generate heated public debates but are a political issue on various stakeholders’ agendas.

For instance, both the European Union and the Swiss Parliament are interested in the risks and benefits of this technology, raising the questions of the adequacy and scope of regulatory frameworks, as well as the level of societal acceptability of the general public, when they are deployed at scale. According to the 2021 European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) report on Urban Air Mobility, drones may be deployed as an air transportation system for passengers and cargo in and around urban environments within Europe in three to five years, offering potentially greener and faster mobility solutions. This technology trend requires European, national and local authorities to prepare agile regulatory frameworks at different levels. Critical to its success is the confidence and acceptance of citizens and future users in drone technology and its related services and infrastructure.

In the Swiss context, in 2019, the Canton of Geneva took the “UAM Initiative” to develop a certified prototype “air ambulance” as part of its urban air mobility strategies. This heavy-load drone (2 tonnes) was envisioned to be used for the non-urgent transport of patients between the University Hospital of Geneva and the Hospital of Trois-Chênes. Based on a feasibility study conducted under the European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities, the Council of State approved the project’s continuation, whereby a prototype “air ambulance” was expected to fly in 2025. This announcement generated heated public debates among Swiss citizens. They expressed reservations about whether this is an effective and necessary way to transport patients or evacuate victims in a populated urban setting.

In the Canton of Zurich, after two consecutive drone incidents in 2019, the public opinion towards the previously highly appraised Swiss Post drones carrying lab samples between hospitals reached its lowest. Despite the efforts made for safety and flight permissions, the two accidents – out of some 3,000 flights – risked setting back the entire industry. In 2021, together with the Swiss Academy of Engineering Sciences, the Canton of Zurich organised an expert workshop on “Autonomous Systems in Zurich”. One of the central themes was “Acceptance and Concerns of the Public”. This initiative demonstrates a vested interest of the Swiss public administration in the importance of the topic and an emerging need for gaining a better and deeper understanding of it.

Q – How are you carrying out your research?

The SADUS project is seed-funded by the UZH-UNIGE Strategic Partnership Program to carry out a pilot study to map out where the potential “blind spots” may lie and whether the suggested research methods would suffice. It is expected that the outcomes of these initial studies will contribute directly to the larger project on the societal acceptance of autonomous systems in urban environments, whereby more use cases will be examined – such as the “environmental drones” used for biodiversity monitoring or precision agriculture, to establish a body of evidence-based knowledge on the topic. Apart from the core research team, various key stakeholders have supported taking the project forward, with whom partnership building is ongoing. These actors include leading academic institutions, industry members, public administration and regulatory authorities, special interest groups, and think tanks.

The pilot study will comprise three work packages carried out across 15 months, including a 12-months research phase and a 3-months dissemination phase. The research phase will focus on four activities: stakeholder consultations, a literature review, a quantitative representative population survey, and a set of qualitative interviews. In the dissemination phase, in addition to scientific publications, we will also work on dissemination materials and a public-facing event to help different stakeholder groups navigate the ethical, social and regulatory terrains when developing their respective business strategies or policy agendas. This bottom-up and stakeholder-driven approach will be carried through during the entire research to ensure that society is vigorously involved in the solution-seeking process from earlier on, while the impact of science on society and politics is optimised in an accessible and pragmatic manner.

Q – How are you planning to use the results of your research?

Given that deploying high-impact technologies, such as drones, touches upon many ethical and societal issues, establishing a knowledge base on this topic is paramount. Currently, there is a lack of empirical knowledge on the prevailing perceptions about and attitudes toward the urban use of drones, both in the mainstream public discourse and in the scientific community. Moreover, this epistemological lacuna suggests a lack of awareness of the normative implications, where issues pertaining to access and equity, benefit-sharing, harm and risk, consent, allocation of public resources, job loss, etc., may be overlooked. Further still, directly or indirectly, these issues have profound societal impacts on public policy setting and individual wellbeing. The increasing demands and high potential of drones used in urban environments, hence, require nuanced understandings of the technicalities of the technology, the ethical risks associated with it, the regulatory frameworks within which it functions, and ultimately the societal acceptability of its deployment at scale.

Based on the expected research findings, we seek to analyse and examine Swiss citizens’ perceptions, attitudes, expectations and concerns concerning using drones in urban environments, where humans and robots will co-exist, co-operate, and co-evolve. These findings will help shed light on what services or ecosystems the public may value and what possible directions the authorities may take in terms of urban mobility and airspace regulation. As such, the project will bring impacts on two main levels. From the scientific perspective, it will offer critical insights to social sciences and robotics scholars who either develop the technology or study its impacts. They will be informed about the public perceptions around robotic technology, which can help increase their sensitivity to societal values at stake, understand how the technology should behave in society, and drive future design and deployment in ways that will ease public concerns. The societal value will provide critical feedback to public administration and regulatory authorities who develop public policies and set regulatory frameworks. They will be informed of the public opinions, preferences, and beliefs about urban drones in concrete use cases, better understand what services or ecosystems meet the public’s expectations, and identify the most optimal urban planning strategies while being mindful of the fundamental values that matter to the public.