Research Project

Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) in the National Airspace (NAS): Public Acceptance and Risk Perception

Motivation/Research Problem
We are motivated by the increasing ubiquity of Unmanned Aerial vehicles (UAV) on the urban landscape. UAV and their many applications within a shared urban landscape are rapidly outpacing legislation and the public’s ability to make sense of them. The speed with which new uses for UAV are implemented or proposed has generated a great deal of research to address technical barriers to implementation, but far fewer studies to assess the relationship between this technology and humans. As the use of UAS for package delivery and urban air mobility (e.g., Uber Air Taxi) appears imminent, we are interested in identifying factors that may contribute to public acceptance and risk perception of UAS in the NAS.
Research Team


  • Mark Skoog: NASA Armstrong, The Integrated Systems Research Program, Automatic Systems Project Office Collaborator


  • Kevin Zemlicka M.A. : Academic Advisement, Anthropology & Psychology

Student Team:

  • Armenuhi Ghazaryan
  • Rachel Rangel
  • Nathan Romine
  • Jessica Steiner
Alignment, Engagement and Contributions to the priorities of NASA’s Mission Directorates
Our research will directly contribute to ongoing projects at NASA Armstrong involving the development of a prototype fixed-wing UAV under the direction of Mark Skoog. This UAV is being tested for autonomous decision making and length of flight capability, each of which is relevant to eventual roll out of UAV for package delivery and urban air mobility.

Research Questions and Research Objectives

Our research relies on an inductive, grounded theory approach. Therefore, our intention is to generate hypotheses and theoretical models for future avenues of research related to UAS in the NAS. While broadly our goal is to identify factors that may inform public acceptance and risk perception related to human-UAV interaction, we do intend to draw questions and related objectives from each stage of this preliminary study. For example, potential research questions and accompanying objectives have already been generated by our literature review, which in turn will inform our subsequent discourse analysis and later our semi-structured interview protocol. Some examples include the following:

  • Research Question 1: Does terminology have an influence on public acceptance and risk perception of UAS in the NAS
  • Research Objective 1: To measure trust calibration of UAS in the NAS based on use of the terms “drone” or “unmanned aerial vehicle” in the interview protocol.
  • Research Question 2: What risks do legislators and the public associate with UAVs and what obstacles impede their integration into the National Airspace (NAS)?
  • Research Objective 2: To determine  if and how the perception of and risks associated with UAVs differ between legislators and the public. 
  • Research Question 3: What sources does the public draw from to shape and inform their perceptions of UAVs or drones?
  • Research Objective 3: To determine what sources inform the public about UAVs and how those sources influence their perception. 
Research Methods

For the purposes of this research we refer to methods as the tools used to acquire data (e.g. semi-structured interview, participant observation, survey, etc.), while methodology refers to the theoretical orientation underpinning our data collection. For example, we will choose to employ semi-structured interview as our preferred research tool (method) because it allows for a more nuanced response from participants, which in turn meets our ethnographic, methodological goal of capturing the social, cultural, and historical context that we believe is integral to understanding how segments of the American public will perceive risk or come to accept integration of UAS in the NAS. 

As mentioned previously, this research utilizes a grounded theory approach, and is therefore an iterative process. We will be taking extensive field notes at each stage of the research process, from literature review, to discourse analysis, and on to our semi-structured interview and eventual coding of those data. These field notes, or “memoing,” informs our development of future avenues of research and theoretical models through which to view our subject. 

An outline of our research methods begins with the literature review. After examining the current state of social scientific research on UAS in the NAS, we move on to our discourse analysis. Our subject, the relationship between technology and society is extraordinarily broad, and so following Gopi et al. (2016:7) we intend to employ discourse analysis as a suitably broad approach. We define discourse as a “comprehensive concept that includes any practice by which individuals imbue reality with meaning” (Gee 2014).  Anthropologists have a long history of exploring discourse through a wide variety of forms (rituals, myth, customs, etc.). For our purposes we will be looking at verbal discourse in textual form. This may come in the form of blogs, books, public records, announcements, reports, or essentially, any text produced by an individual or organization (Gopi et al.:8) that addresses issues around UAVs, or UAS in the NAS. Beginning from the notion that individual and group action is heavily informed by socially produced and shared patterns, the knowledge of this inter-subjectivity will allow us to better understand the social order, opinions, and behaviors (Schutz 1962) as they pertain to UAS. 

Finally, we will employ three sets of semi-structured interview: CSUN students (non-users), UAV hobbyists from Apollo 11 park (casual users), and USAF and NASA engineers and UAV test pilots from NASA Armstrong and Edwards Air Force Base (experienced users). We intend to obtain 15 interviews among each group. When coded and analyzed, these qualitative data will inform our recommendations and final report to NASA Armstrong regarding potential barriers to implementation of UAS in the NAS.

Post-Covid 19 Changes to Research Design:

  • Literature Review remains the same
  • Discourse Analysis with focus on legislation (see explanation below)
  • Semi-structured interview will be conducted with 30 CSUN students
  •  The COVID-19 pandemic has restricted our ability to physically visit areas of interest and interview drone hobbyists and professionals. We initially thought we could overcome these barriers by arranging teleconference interviews. However, virtually connecting with both groups of users has been difficult. Ultimately we decided to limit our semi-structured interviews solely to CSUN students. Doing so eliminated the comparative analysis -based on user experiences- which we had hoped to perform. Yet, our discourse analysis may reduce the impact of this loss and provide alternative perspectives not found in our semi-structured interviews. 

    In the Fall Semester of 2020,  we completed a discourse analysis of past legislation pertaining to drones. Using a database hosted by the League of California Cities, we collected all state legislation that included the word “drone” dating back to 2009. Those pieces of legislation, or bills, were then categorized based on their predominant subject matter as one of the following: Privacy, Safety, Conditional Use: Actors, Restriction of Movement, Certification and Identification Requirements, and Aviation Day. For the purposes of this study, we chose to limit our analysis to Privacy, Conditional Use: Actors, and Restriction of Movement – a total of 14 bills. For each bill, we reviewed its legislative history and extracted recorded comments from each senate and assembly committee that analyzed it. 

    We coded those comments and identified recurrent themes that emerged from the text, identifying primary arguments and concerns of legislators as they considered the regulation of UAS in the NAS. After conducting our analysis, we summarized our findings and presented them to our NASA collaborator, Mark Skoog, and a colleague of his, Nelson Brown, who was interested in our work. Both were impressed by the research and believed that its insights would be of interest to several of their team members working with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). We shared a draft of the research paper and look forward to incorporating feedback from relevant stakeholders. With their encouragement, we intend to prepare this research for publication. 

    Ultimately, the themes that emerged from this discourse analysis can be compared to those that CSUN students share in their interviews. Do we find that risk perception and acceptance of UAS differs between the public and their political representatives? From what we have gathered, there are no existing studies that have analyzed committee comments for drone legislation. This may warrant further investigation by future ARCS teams interested in critical discourse analysis.

Research Deliverables

Deliverables include the following:

  • PowerPoint presentation and copy of the literature review for Mark Skoog at NASA Armstrong
  • PowerPoint presentation and copy of report based on the discourse analysis for Mark Skoog at NASA Armstrong
  • PowerPoint presentation and copy of the final report based on results of the research including suggestions for future collaborative projects (research questions and objectives) with ARCS investigators and NASA engineers, and summary of potential barriers to implementation of UAS in the NAS.

Publication based on results of research. Possible journals include Human Organization and City and Society. Co-authorship between Mark Skoog and research fellows encouraged.

Research Timeline
  • Lit Review – Completed on May 19th, 2020
  • Discourse Analysis –  Completed on October 13th, 2020
  • Interviews & Coding – Completed on November 18th, 2020
  • Coding & Data Analysis – November through December 
  • Summarizing Findings – December through January (deliverable presented end of February)

Are there other activities (e.g., proposals or additional projects) that you have developed or anticipate based on your NASA ARCS project?

I anticipate working with NASA Armstrong and Mark Skoog for a minimum of two more years and building off of this exploratory research. As new questions and theoretical lenses through which to view them are generated, the goal is to maintain the current collaboration over the course of the grant with new research fellows each year. The final deliverable to NASA Armstrong will include several possible research questions and accompanying objectives which could be picked up by Kevin Zemlicka and future ARCS fellows over the duration of the grant.

Impact of Project Partnership with NASA:

From the first meeting with Mark Skoog, my two research fellows and I have felt supported and encouraged to bring any and all ideas regarding our subject to the table. This project is interesting in that it straddles the academic and applied sectors of anthropology. Typically, an applied anthropological project such as ours would be largely client-driven, with little room for examination of the political implications of our subject for example. In Mark, and NASA Armstrong, we appear to have collaborators with an interest in maintaining the academic integrity of the project alongside the goal of addressing a question relevant to their own pursuits. This is exceedingly rare in applied work, and has allowed my research fellows to truly explore the highly nuanced historical, social, and cultural context of UAS in the NAS with no fear that they have somehow “moved off topic.” Overall, the supportive culture at NASA Armstrong, beginning with the leadership of Mark Skoog, has been a great benefit to my research fellows and to the quality of the work they produce.