Would you feel safe riding a passenger drone? According to research, most Americans wouldn't

Key Points
  • More than half of U.S. consumers wouldn't feel safe flying in a self-driving "passenger drone", YouGov says.
  • Only 5 percent of American consumers said they would feel safe riding in one.
  • But YouGov's own tech analyst is convinced passenger drones will be a hit with consumers in just 5 years.
Skip the traffic with your personal flying drone
Skip the traffic with your personal flying drone

Commuters in Dubai could be taking to the skies in "passenger drones" later this year. The city's Roads and Transportation Agency announced in June that its autonomous aerial taxi (AAT) service will be trialled at some point between October and December, with aircraft provided by German aviation company Volocopter.

But new research from YouGov suggests that consumers might not be so willing to take a ride in a passenger drone taxi service any time soon.

According to a report released Friday, only a quarter of U.S. adults had even heard of passenger drones – unmanned aerial vehicles capable of transporting people from one location to another. Two-thirds of Americans hadn't heard of them, it said.

More worryingly, more than half of U.S. adults surveyed said they would feel unsafe flying in a passenger drone, with 54 percent saying they wouldn't feel safe. Only 5 percent said they would feel safe.

More women than men said they would feel unsafe riding in one, with 59 percent of women saying they would feel unsafe compared to 51 percent of men.

An EHang 184 autonomous-flight drone that can fly a person is displayed at CES 2016 at the Las Vegas Convention Center on January 7, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Ethan Miller | Getty Images

Although the vast majority of U.S. consumers (79 percent) responded that they would be happy to fly in a self-driving drone so long as they could take control of it.

Passenger drones will take off in 5 years

Despite these concerns, YouGov's own technology analysts believe autonomous passenger planes will take off in just 5 years.

"There is good reason to think that market penetration of passenger carrying drones will be quicker than our survey might lead you to believe," Tom Fuller, research director at YouGov, told CNBC in an email. "Similar levels of caution and even fear were expressed for previous technologies, notably airplanes, but daredevils and postal delivery made them seem commonplace in a very short period."

"A number of well-respected manufacturers are planning to build passenger drones," he added. Chinese firm Beijing Yi-Hang Creation Science & Technology Co., developer of the eHang passenger drone (which was initially touted to be Dubai's vehicle of choice), aviation giant Airbus, and Volocopter, all have a stake in the technology.

French-based Airbus unveiled its own version of the passenger drone - a flying passenger "pod" that can convert into a car - in March.

Even though research indicates otherwise, Fuller believes the drones will become as commonplace as airplanes and trains - much in the same way that commercial drones reached mainstream stores as toys.

"Looking at our survey results, it's easy to speculate that very low awareness of passenger carrying drones contributes to fears about their safety," Fuller said. "But as non-passenger drones become ubiquitous, being used for filming weddings and concerts, delivering packages, racing and other activities, consumer awareness will increase and familiarity will ease the fears of many."

Drones are likely to disrupt other industries - such as health - in a way which boosts consumer confidence, the analyst said. "The use of drones for medical assistance and delivery of medicines will probably help create a favorable impression of the technology."

Risks facing the technology

Fuller added that the number of risks facing passenger drones were actually fewer than those facing driverless cars. Driverless cars, such as those being developed by Google and Tesla, would "have to contend with human-operated cars, bicycles and pedestrians". "Roads are less forgiving than three-dimensional airspace," he added.

But the threat of terrorism could slow the process, Fuller fears. And with cyberattacks such as ransomware and the malware which locked the files of computers at major companies last month, the hacking and hijacking of an unmanned drone seems likelier than ever.

Fuller anticipates the integration of the technology into the market to be gradual, and gives it "2 years for proof of concept for air taxis and increasing use of drones for delivery", an additional 2 years for its use by "wealth hobbyists", and a final year for taxi giants Uber, Lyft and Yellow Cab to introduce a limited service on major commuter routes.

More reassuringly, YouGov's research indicated that consumers might be likely to accept passenger drones over time, with 62 percent of participants saying that they might be willing to buy one in the future. 25 percent of American consumers said they would never be interested in buying a passenger drone. And a very small portion - 4 percent - said they wanted to get their hands on one as soon as possible.