DHS Wants to Know What the Public Thinks About Using Drones During Emergencies


A forthcoming survey will ask people about their knowledge of unmanned aerial systems and how they are used, and their opinions on the ethical implications.

As unmanned aerial systems—or drones—gain wider use among law enforcement and first responders, the Homeland Security Department’s Science and Technology Directorate wants to gauge public opinion on how this technology is being used.

Drones are currently being used for a host of emergency response capabilities, from monitoring wildfires to tracking protestors and conducting surveillance during civil unrest.

To get a better idea of how citizens’ knowledge and feeling about these uses, DHS plans to issue a survey titled, “Understanding Public Perception and Acceptance of First Responders Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” according to a notice posted Tuesday to the Federal Register.

“First responder organizations have used UAS to search for lost children, identify high risk areas in burning structures, facilitate relief operations following hurricanes, reduce risk and exposure for law enforcement officers in active-shooter events, and many other use cases,” S&T Chief Information Officer Gregg Piermarini wrote in the notice. “The primary purpose of this survey is to understand the public perception of and identify concerns with current and potential uses of UAS technology by first responders.”

The survey will include questions about the respondent’s knowledge of drones and their capabilities, as well as their use by first responders and opinions on those uses; and whether they trust governments and first responders to use this technology ethically.

The survey will also ask respondents about their personal demographics to get a better idea of how opinions differ among various backgrounds.

“The survey will also ask respondents to evaluate the effectiveness of different test messages that we have created to deliver information to the public about first responder drone applications,” Piermarini said.

DHS officials plan to issue the survey just once and expect about 2,000 responses from the general public, each of which is expected to take no more than 20 minutes to complete.

Interested parties have until July 9 to comment on the structure and content of the survey. Officials are particularly interested in hearing feedback on five questions:

  • Is this collection necessary to the proper functions of the department?
  • Will this information be processed and used in a timely manner?
  • Is the estimate of burden accurate?
  • How might the department enhance the quality, utility and clarity of the information to be collected?
  • How might the department minimize the burden of this collection on the respondents, including through the use of information technology?

As of Wednesday, the request had already garnered a response suggesting DHS “only use free, accessible, online survey instruments,” include first responders in development of the survey and “promote federal research initiatives” like Challenge.gov.