Public insight into future flight technologies revealed

Little child playing pilot.

Landmark public dialogue and new funding give the public a real stake in the future development and regulation of emerging aviation technology in the UK.

A new public dialogue report plus more funding for social research were announced today (20 July 2022) by the future flight challenge at UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

The report was commissioned by the future flight challenge and supported by UKRI’s Sciencewise programme. It provides a unique insight into people’s hopes, expectations and concerns about the potential future operations of three different types of future flight technologies for civilian use:

  • drones
  • advanced air mobility (‘air taxis’)
  • regional air mobility (‘eco planes’).

Conditional support

Whilst participants recognised these technologies held potential and promise, their support was conditional on further research before public investment in these technologies is accelerated.

Generally, many felt more strongly about their concerns than the potential benefits, with participants raising concerns about a range of issues including:

  • personal safety and collisions arising from busier and more crowded skies
  • cybersecurity concerns, particularly over automated vehicles being hacked
  • privacy and data protection, to restrict intrusion into and video recording of people’s private and domestic lives
  • governance, regulation and licensing to intentionally constrain “uncontrolled expansion of commercial uses of future flight technologies”
  • accessibility and affordability concerns, given the potential to exacerbate inequality
  • employment, jobs to ensure training is targeted towards those from underprivileged backgrounds or where jobs have been displaced
  • environmental concerns, to ensure these technologies would be greener than current methods. These concerns included:
    • impacts on wildlife and biodiversity
    • air pollution
    • visual pollution
    • noise pollution.

Justifiable applications

Greater convenience was rarely seen as reasonable.

But there were specific exceptions where participants could see the potential for drones, ‘air taxis’ and new aviation technologies to make UK lives better in the future. These exceptions potentially made participants more accepting of their deployment. These included improving:

  • emergency services for medical and humanitarian purposes
  • infrastructure or access to goods or services in rural, or remote UK locations
  • regional connectivity across the UK
  • the environmental credentials and sustainability of public transportation.

The surveying and repair of critical infrastructure, such as storm damage to railways and power lines is also seen as acceptable.

Accessibility and governance

Given considerable uncertainty about how these technologies might evolve, there were overriding concerns about accessibility (for those living with disabilities and in terms of socio-economic accessibility) and appropriate levels of governance.

It was clear that public support for these technologies will be contingent on them being accessible to all communities across UK and subject to strong governance and regulation.

Additional funding

Participants recommended and expansion of research in this area to include a broader range of public and specialist perspectives. To build on this the future flight challenge is investing a further £1.8 million in social science research through the Economic and Social Research Council.

The funding will allow the UK to better understand how more integrated aviation systems and technologies might bring about a range of social and economic benefits to the UK.

This research will allow further engagement with communities across the UK to better understand how these technologies can be developed in a way that responds to real social needs, concerns or expectations.

Drawing on the public’s views will enable better understanding of how the social benefits of these new technologies might be made accessible to all members of UK society.

Enabling further social research

Professor Fern Elsdon-Baker, UKRI future flight challenge Social Science Research Director, University of Birmingham said:

These new aviation technologies are just on the horizon and have the potential to radically change aspects of our day-to-day lives. So, it is vital we build a better understanding of their social benefits, impacts, and implications before they are rolled out.

The public dialogue report gives us a valuable steer directly from the UK public as to how they would like to see these technologies employed or operated.

The announcement from UKRI of funding to enable further social research and community engagement that draws on this report is very timely.

It emphasizes the growing, much needed role of public engagement in the development of future research and innovation.

Designing a better future together

Tom Saunders, Head of Public Engagement, UKRI said: 

Science and technology can change so fast that policy and regulation often struggle to keep pace.

We welcome this timely public dialogue, ensuring the public’s priorities are front and centre as new future flight technologies, applications and policy developments emerge.

UKRI’s Sciencewise programme helps researchers, policymakers and innovators understand what the public really thinks, and ensures that experts, government and the public can design a better future together.

Further information

Sciencewise is an internationally recognised public engagement programme which enables policy makers, research councils and research funders to develop socially informed policy on science and technology.

Sciencewise helps to ensure policy is informed by the views and aspirations of the public. The programme is led and funded by UKRI with support from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Top image:  Credit: Choreograph, iStock, Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

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